The exit from Game of Thrones has left room for a new historical fantasy show that attracts audiences who crave their tastes. Everyone plans to offer a replacement – HBO is working on several previous versions of Thrones, while Netflix will be offering Henry Cavill in The Witcher later this year – including Amazon, which has great ambitions and plans under founder Jeff Bezos' new guidelines, more than one Billion dollars to bring out a series in the world of the lord of the rings. But while that's still some time away, another Amazon fantasy competitor is here: Carnival Row. It has mythical creatures like fairies and fauns living next to men, and its surroundings can best be described as London around Jack the Ripper via Prague. (It was shot entirely in the Czech Republic.)
To be fair, Carnival Row is not very similar to Game of Thrones. In fact, it's a fascinating mix of multiple genres in one. Sometimes it's a thriller, a political drama, a love story, or a supernatural fantasy. Parts of it play an allegory for colonization, as the human invaders of the nation-state of Burgue conquered other worlds, made fauns into servants and forced fairies into the corners of society. Other parts of Carnival Row capture the modern refugee crisis through the lens of industrial prejudice, with Burgues politicians and human citizens dealing with xenophobia and anxiety disorder. And then some parts function as parallels to the atrocities of the world wars and the division of minorities into ghettos.
That's a rich tapestry for every show, but Carnival Row – by Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim) and René Echevarria (Star Trek: The Next Generation) – don't know exactly what to do with it. It throws everything on the wall in the hope that something will stay, but apart from the obvious evidence of real events and the fascist views of leaders and how mistrust sows and divides people, Carnival Row is unable to do anything devise a coherent presentation. And for a show that offers so much on paper, it's surprising that not much of it is very executive.
And although it's not a Game of Thrones, it doesn't mean it won't be tried. An aspiring power player raves about the beauty of chaos (Littlefinger, anyone?) And indulges in a bit of incest (hello, Cersei), even though the other party doesn't initially know what it's worth for. Carnival Row also has a Stranger Things-type monster that is in shadow for most of the season. (With fairies, faunas, and beasts, you can see why Guillermo del Toro was once associated with the project as a co-writer and director. He resigned because of his other commitments.)
Carnival Row opens by telling viewers about the conflict between The Burgue and The Pact (including people, but crazier). Since the war was no longer financially viable, the Burgu armed forces dropped Anoun, the world of fairies – short for fairies – seven years ago and left it to the pillaging pact. Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) – Carnival Row has a long history with flowery names – is a fairy who saved others of her kind for money. After a mission has gone wrong, it has to go and ends up in Burgue. But it's a miracle that she is the only survivor of a shipwreck to get there alive, only to recover the money owing from the formerly rich owner of the ship, Ezra Spurnrose (Andrew Gower), as a maid to his sister Imogen (Tamzin Merchant) Refugee. Basically a slave.
Ezra and Imogen are trapped in their own aristocratic world. The newcomer to your neighborhood, Mr. Agreus (David Gyasi), turns out to be a faun. (He – and others of his kind – are only referred to by the arc "puck" in Carnival Row, while fairies are called "pix", short for "pixies".) In the meantime, Vignette's former burguist lover, whom she calls dead holds, a The human detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) – commonly called Philo – is very much alive. He has investigated what he thinks is a hate crime, but soon realizes that it is part of a much larger conspiracy. Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) fights with a political rival while his wife Piety (Indira Varma) spins her own Machiavellian networks.
Even if Carnival Row has an ensemble, it is the story of the two torn lovers Vignette and Philo who tend to the latter. Future episodes – critics, including us, had access to all eight episodes of season one – delve into their shared background and love story, which not only tell us more about them but also help explain the choices they made in the meet today. But Carnival Row is a bit simple when it comes to building them, as there are either scenes that feel staged to demonstrate their qualities, or get smaller characters to say how good they are, rather than us to show that. In addition, all the other characters aren't rewarded with this luxury, like Harris, who plays a one-note character.
But Carnival Row's major narrative crime is how it keeps collapsing over the course of the season and making its world smaller instead of letting it grow. Surprising connections between two apparently unrelated characters are an interesting revelation at the moment, but also mean a lesser show in the future, because in the end you only tell one story about one character. In addition, it doesn't help that viewers see some twists and turns a mile away, mostly because the show reveals a lack of on-screen villains pushing their secret.
On a thematic level, Carnival Row deals exclusively with racism, although it takes place at a time when slave labor and attribution do not deserve a second look. Just because the primary internal conflict has shifted to speciesism does not mean that people have suddenly outgrown their skin color prejudices. Including Carnival Row could have made it richer and more complex. For what it's worth, it's better on the LGBTQ front because the Amazon show is quietly queer-friendly without making it a defining feature of a character's life.
In addition, it is disappointed that it is not conscious. There are also a few minor issues in Carnival Row, from introducing and then forgetting whole subplots, unnecessarily repeating the information that the audience had previously received the same episode, to carelessly disregarding the exact setting.
Even if time is unclear, the historical backdrop – with a pinch of imagination – should mean a larger, universal audience than a documentary drama would allow Carnival Row to comment on today's social problems around the world. This message is even recorded in a self-referential way, since philo and vignette are linked through an intercultural history. Unfortunately, the show is not half as clever with its presentation. It will have an opportunity to correct this in its second season – Amazon renewed the show in July – though this will happen without some of the great actors who appear to have signed up for just a year. It's a shame because they gave her a lot of credibility.
At the moment, Carnival Row is a great Victoriana fantasy that could have done with a clearer idea of what she wants to be and a lot more heart (unlike her rousing theme song). And that's not good enough to be a Game of Thrones replacement at all.
Carnival Row is now available from Amazon Prime Video in India.