A friend texted me a couple of weeks ago and asked, “When am I seeing you next? I desperately need to talk to you about Carnival Row.”
I’d seen a trailer on Amazon earlier in the summer, and my first reaction was an excited, Someone’s making high-budget steampunk? My second thought was less excited and perhaps more realistic: But, I mean, what are the chances that it’s actually any good?
I watched the first couple of episodes with my friend, and over the course of a week watched the other six episodes when I could.
And, no, it’s not a great show, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t already a fantasy fan. I think at some point I described it to my brother as “gothic trash fantasy.” But I thoroughly enjoyed watching it, the show got some things very right, and it surprised me in several ways I’d like to see happen more often in fantasy.
In the plus column, my first impression that the series was well-produced proved true throughout the whole show. The visual storytelling was wonderfully immersive, from the fairy creatures to the grungy nineteenth-century sets and costumes to the steampunk technology. It’s a fun show to watch, even when the character arcs and believability leave things to be desired.
The world building in general was strong, not only in the scenery and props. The war that provided the historical backdrop for the show had a number of opposing players with complex relationships between the different human and fairy populations, and the political systems made sense for the most part. Amazon provides a lot of trivia on Prime videos, which often are about the filming or actors; for Carnival Row, many of the trivia bits were extra historical details that the show creators knew about the world but hadn’t had space to work into the script.
And the plot for the main two characters was satisfying, although they were archetypal roles: the brooding detective inspector in his Derby hat and long coat and the feisty Irish fairy who protects her people and culture. Many of the other characters fell flat for me, though, because of the predictability of the storylines, especially the rich humans and their new faun neighbor trying to break through human stereotypes about fauns.
Like lots of good fantasy and sci-fi before it, Carnival Row used its distance from modern-day issues to in fact directly address those issues. Large populations of fairies and fauns have been displaced in the war, and the show uses their status as refugees in a human city to critique Western responses to the global refugee crisis. Racism is compounded in interesting ways by white, black, and brown actors portraying both humans (privileged figures) as well as fairies and fauns (disenfranchised figures). The critique of politics explored through Chancellor Breakspear and his family was also interesting but spoiled by too many unrealistic details (such as an assassination of a political rival that is glossed over without a police investigation, public outcry, or political retaliation in parliament?).
Probably my favorite aspect of the show, however, was the genre transitions between urban steampunk fantasy and high fantasy. One episode explores how the two main characters first met years ago in the war, and viewers are transported from the urban grunge of the Burgue to a snowy mountain monastery that would fit into a good epic fantasy series. With the continuity of characters and story, though, the mix of fantasy subgenres was seamless and effectively made the world feel a lot bigger and more lived in. I liked when the show creators were thinking big and didn’t let the viewers’ expectations box them in.