The first note I wrote down while watching Carnival Row was, “Who is this show for?” Eight hours later, I do not have an answer, unless that answer is “probably no one.” Yes, it’s admirable to try to make fantasy creatures roam around a Victorian England-looking city (they don’t fit), or to set off into the great unknown of non-existent intellectual property (it actually makes you realize the many benefits of IP). But ultimately, admirability is no substitute for watchability, and Amazon’s newest fantasy series ignores genre convention to an illogical end. Carnival Row is the television equivalent of word vomit. The intention is there, but the product is hasty, jumbled, and confusing.
The vitally important world-building facet of fantasy seems rather recklessly performed here, making the foundation of this show feel more bullet-pointed than dossier-ed. Rather than being steeped in its own mythology, Carnival Row exists through flimsy tidbits that come from and go nowhere, and casual references to larger cultural artifacts. (My favorite example of which is the cursory mention of a “Saint Titania” among the fae folk. Plus one point for everyone who paid attention during freshman English!) We don’t feel as though we’ve been immersed into a world that’s been established for thousands of years. Being in Carnival Row is like being dropped into a production meeting halfway. (And don’t let its Wiki page fool you – very little of what’s detailed on that website is in the actual show.)
In order to understand the indecision mire in which Carnival Row has caught itself, one need only look to its main character. Only his name, in fact: Rycroft Philostrate. Okay so his name is a supremely goofy fantasy name, but we’re in this world and that’s not the issue. The issue comes from the fact that he goes by the nickname “Philo.” So. Of aaall the potential nicknames that are derivative of his full name, the powers that be skipped over the one-syllable ones like Ry, Croft, Strate, or even Lo, and they went with the only situation in which his nickname has as many syllables as his actual name and is actually longer than any other nickname option. Oh, and when it’s shortened, Philo is pronounced with a long “I” vowel sound. When in its full iteration, it has a short “I” sound.
Yes. The nickname is pronounced differently than the word from which it derives.
But here’s the main point: Why does he have a nickname at all? Writers, if you wanted him to be called Philo with a long I, then for the love of Saint Titania why didn’t you just name him that?
The meandering logic that it took to name its main character can be applied it to nearly every decision made in the creation of Carnival Row. The source of the idea for any given plot point or narrative arc may have been created with some intent, but the execution is often so stodgy and full of holes that what we get are more questions than answers.
The sense you get is not one of laziness, to be fair (in fact the opposite could be true, to a fault), but of a lack of confidence. Almost beset with the responsibility of being new in an ever-expanding world of IP, Carnival Row frequently veers into the insecure. At nearly every turn it second guesses the strength of what it’s created. Storylines are picked up, briefly considered, then discarded more often than they’re followed-through. With the exception of a couple of decent outliers, the objectives of characters are never fully-formed or connected to one another. They’re just free-floating through any given plot, not tied to each other or to their physical space (not literally, obviously, since many of these characters can fly), and ultimately accomplishing very little.
This indecision appears to have something of a trickle-down effect from its bullet-pointed beginnings. Every character, with all their dialogue, action, and backstory, and every plot that extends from them, and every subplot that extends from there, is like a nail in shitty drywall. They hammer in one idea and what’s created are cracks, which create more cracks, nail after nail, and so on, until the structure inevitably begins to crumble.
Not helping Carnival Row’s infrastructure is its odd reliance on politics. The most tepid of the three major plots involves characters who work in a system of government so on-high that it rarely interacts with the other plotlines in a meaningful way. Perhaps this was purposeful, used to show how disconnected the policymakers are from real life, but every scene and every character in this plotline ends up reading as just disconnected.
Worse yet is the show’s penchant for bait-y political commentary. It sets out to address all manner of sociopolitical issues, and it mostly does, as curtly as a fairy godmother waiving her wand. A handful of gay characters show up in bit parts, and in short order two of them are dead. Faeries, pucks, and other species have been forced to flee their countries of origin due to war, so the topic of immigration plays a substantial and fruitless role in the show. Racism also rears its head due to the city’s new inhabitants.
When I say “racism,” I should specify that the racism in the show’s world is not referring to skin color. The fact that there are several species other than humans in this world creates many points of contention among many characters, which results in an ideology resembling racism. One major plot in particular plays the race relations card in the most predictable way imaginable, in which a female woman (who happens to be white) and a male puck (who happens to be black) become romantically entwined. That this is the most effective plot of the entire series is both a wonder and a disappointment. (For the record, the wonder comes from Tamzin Merchant as Imogen Spurnrose, whose deft performance steals the whole show right out from under its glitzy leads. Merchant makes clear, defined choices that allow for her character to show depth rather than drastic changes in heart. She’s not given much, to be sure, and that material would have doomed a lesser actor.)
Carnival Row is ostensibly about immigration and racism, but episode by episode the action never catches up with its premise. Because despite what the show might have you believe, its intention is never to deal with the incredibly complex and far-reaching issues it raises. In one infuriatingly smug line, a character suggests that the country solved racism of skin lone long ago, while offering no explanation of how or at what cost or the extent of the struggles that it took to get there. Carnival Row is not here to deal with racism, immigration, or homophobia. It’s here to plant a flag on the right side of history.
When allegory is done right it achieves its payoff by fitting both our world and the fictional world, but Carnival Row is so self-conscious in its pursuit of allegory that it’s wholly ineffective. The problem with trying to tackle real-world issues in our very troubled time is that if done indelicately, as is the case here, it comes off as pedantic at best, and can bleed into the offensive and condescending. It contributes to the noise rather than makes sense of it.
The first season of Carnival Row is clumpy at best. It ends in a cacophonous finale episode so full of half-hearted exposition that it’s exhausting, and the rash ways in which it ties up what little plot remained negates just about everything that happened in the previous seven hours. It suggests that the already-green-lit second season will start from near scratch, which could be a potential blessing for Carnival Row’s creators. After all this, we’re owed more than a show made up of ill-fitting, rusting, creaking steampunk gears.