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Amazon's Carnival Row: Season 1 Review



This is a spoiler-free review of Amazon Carnival Row Season 1, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime worldwide.

When venturing into the sprawling world of Amazon's Carnival Row, it is forewarned: its greatest strength – its ambitious

Meticulously realized by creators Travis Beacham (who first developed the idea as a spec film script that hit The Blacklist, Hollywood's repository of the best unproduced screenplays, in 2005) and René Echevarria, with an assist from fellow executive producer Marc Guggenheim, Carnival Row trying to accomplish a lot of different things with varying degrees of success.

Just for starters, it's a murder period mystery reminiscent of The Alienist; a neo-Victorian fantasy full of supernatural creatures like Penny Dreadful; a twisty political saga with shades of Game of Thrones; and a Downton Abbey-esque examination of class and racial divides ̵

1; which, if you're a fan of any or all of those shows, might be the only selling point you need.

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It's all set against the backdrop of a city called The Burgue (where the titular Carnival Row is located), a powder keg on the brink of exploding thanks to increasing hostilities between the local human population and refugee supernatural creatures – including faeries, fauns, centaurs, and kobolds – who have been displaced by the wars of men. The show has plenty of slurs for these fantastic beasts (faeries are called “pix,” fauns “pucks,” and collectively, all non-human creatures are called “critch”), so you'll need to pay close attention in early episodes if you want to have any hope of keeping every species and political affiliation straight.

But despite its lofty aspirations, the jack of all trades approach ends up undercutting some of Carnival Row's most potent themes, and you may be left wishing the supernatural fantasy series simply picked one lane instead of hogging the entire road. Still, its willingness to experiment sets it apart – as much as it seems reminiscent of many other fantasy projects that have come and gone while languished in development, there's really nothing else like Carnival Row on TV right now.

At the heart of the series is a star-crossed romance between a faerie refugee, Cara Delevingne's spectacularly-named Vignette Stonemoss, and Burguish Detective, Orlando Bloom's Rycroft Philostrate ("Philo" for short, thank goodness). The couple has a tumultuous history, but their paths intersect years after their last encounter when Vignette arrives on the Row, where Philo is a local police inspector investigating a string of murders. Delevingne is perfectly cast as the prickly and resilient fae freedom fighter, and while Bloom isn't given much to except glower and brood in the early episodes, his role is deepens in fascinating ways as the show goes on.

Carnival Row Gallery

[1965459013] [1965459013] alone would be meaty enough for most shows to chew on, but Carnival Row also throws in a dizzying array of subplots. The season's most engaging and resonant supporting narrative involves a pair of upper-class siblings, Imogen and Ezra Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant and Andrew Gower) grappling with the scandalous arrival of a wealthy faun neighbor, Agreus Astrayon (a scene-stealing David Gyasi who exudes

Then there is the political machinations of Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris), his savvy wife Piety (Indira Varma), and their layabout son Jonah ( Arty Froushan) as they struggle to maintain power against their Parliamentary rivals, the ambitious Longerbane family; plus myriad detours featuring the various fae and faun factions as they attempt to survive in a city that treats them as second-class citizens, their clashes with the constabulary, and the resentments that bubble up as a result.

Many of these disparate threads to start to tie together in clever ways as the show nears its finale, but with so much going on in every episode and no clear throughline until the back half of the season, it sometimes feels like if Carnival Row can't decide what it wants to be. Minor spoiler alert: the season also features a chilling monster that is crafted from pieces of other creatures, which becomes an apt comparison for the show itself – a jumble of competing ideas, all fascinating in their own right, but still somewhat clumsy when stitched together .

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The show straddles that line between the silly and the sublime in its visuals, too. The costumes, production design, and makeup effects (especially for the fauns) are stunning, creating a vibrant, tactile world featuring teeming with activity and nuance, with the sights and sounds of Row practically wafting off the screen. But when the show relies too heavily on CGI effects – from the fae's wings to snarling werewolf attacks – things start to look a little rough around the edges. Given how Game of Thrones had to essentially write its direwolves out of the show because it didn't have the budget to do justice creatures, Carnival Row deserves bonus points just for trying to bring a whole world full of fantasy creatures to life with such aplomb, even if it sometimes misses the mark.

To Carnival Row's credit, it definitely doesn't take the audience's intellect for granted – the show throws viewers at the deep end and trusts them to keep up with the many competing characters and loyalties it introduces, and makes quick and confident work of respecting their personalities, even when their motivations are murky.

The worldbuilding for the series is staggering – you can feel the depth of all the mythology that Beacham has clearly mapped out, even if we don't get all the answers or backstory we might be craving in this eight-episode first season. In some ways, Carnival Row feels like it might have been better served as an open-world game than a linear TV narrative, with fascinating side quests waiting around every corner. There's so much history, so many different locations and species to explore, the possibilities for where the series could feel almost limitless, which is why it's a little disappointing that Season 1 spends so much narrative real estate on a fairly standard murder mystery plot,

Still, it's a stunning tale to sink into, one that rewards attentive viewing; more than many shows in recent memory, Carnival Row invites a rewatch to pick up clues or catch the background details you may have missed the first time around. For some, this process of rediscovery might feel like a delicious scavenger hunt – and for fans who love to immerse themselves in the show's history and mythology, Carnival Row could be a singularly satisfying experience – but if you're not prepared to invest time and concentration in the story (with the caveat that not every plot thread is paid off at the end of the season), this probably isn't the fantasy drama for you.


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