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 ̵
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.