‘Carnival Row’ is Television Word Vomit

‘Carnival Row’ is the television equivalent of word vomit. The intention is there, but the product is hasty, jumbled, and confusing.

Amazon

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. 

When ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Became Grief Porn

That MGM thought a lighthearted wink of a cross-marketing campaign would work for a TV show that includes repeated government-sanctioned rape proves that the Handmaid’s Tale brand is unaware of its own narrative, culturally or otherwise.

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Just a week ago, it was announced that MGM, the production company behind Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was pairing with online wine retailer Lot18 to release a collection of wines inspired by the popular series. Per People, you could get one of three varietals, each branded with a character from the series. There was an Offred Pinot Noir, an Ofglen Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Serena Joy Bordeaux Blanc, each cheekily described with adjectives like “powerful,” “daring,” and “austere,” respectively. It was a kitschy move, one that invited viewers to enjoy the fall of democracy and enslavement of women with wine, but be sure to enjoy it with their wine.

It was also a thoughtless move that was not lost on many a viewer. Less than 24 hours later, the Handmaid’s wine collection was pulled after an uproar over the tone-deafness of the campaign. Put most succinctly by one Twitter user:

Lot18 is a company that happened to already have several collections of TV- and movie-inspired wine, but neither Outlander nor Master Chef have enjoyed success due in part to the degradation of the American sociopolitical landscape and legitimate fear for what rights may be stripped away because of it. That MGM thought a lighthearted wink of a cross-marketing campaign would work for a TV show that includes repeated government-sanctioned rape proves that the Handmaid’s Tale brand is unaware of its own narrative, culturally or otherwise.

We don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale for fun. We don’t feel good about the world after we’re done an episode. We’re incensed, deflated, despondent. So why do more and more of us subject ourselves to this world of infinite despair? Because we need it.

Even when we try to march, donate, and vote, often it never feels like enough. We can’t be human beings in the current American climate without feeling guilty. How do we get up and do work, or go food shopping, or get pedicures, or wash our cars, or mow our lawns, knowing that human rights atrocities are happening in our midst at the exact time we’re living our lives? It’s a deep helplessness that seeps into our days, because not far there’s always a smartphone to remind us of what’s happening.

Even when we try to avoid the news, we know we’re avoiding the news. We’re actively pushing away the truths of our times in order to go to work, get food, and mow the lawn, because we have the privilege to do so. We of the cisgendered, heterosexual, white, middle class demo have the privilege to feel guilty, and not worse.

So we watch The Handmaid’s Tale. We watch our protagonists get beaten, raped, degraded, mutilated, humiliated for nearly thirteen hours a season, all for the sake of self-flagellation. Because we need something fake to point at and say, “Hey! See? It can happen!” as we sit in the real world that we can do so little about.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to use art to indulge in despair. The relief it provides is as cathartic as a good cry. But despair is rarely rewatchable, so in order to be most effective it has to be done extraordinarily well. I’ll never forget the image of Nora being trampled on by a mob in The Leftovers, or the other ghost in A Ghost Story, because of how deeply those stories burrowed into the despair center of my brain. But I may never watch them again, even though they’re both excellent pieces of film. Because when would I willingly put myself through that again? A Tuesday evening? A Saturday afternoon?

The Handmaid’s Tale implored you to indulge in despair every Wednesday for twelve weeks, because you needed it to feel like a sentient liberal. You needed it to feel like a feminist, or an activist, or a revolutionary, when everything else felt like it was keeping you down. And it knew you would watch.

It’s cynical, sure, but this is the Handmaid’s Tale that Hulu created on the heels of a tyrant coming into power: a show that wishes to commiserate in our grief, then offers us a sliver of hope, only to push us into deeper grief, and back around again. It fed off our desire for programming to reflect our time, then created a second season to keep our despair centers pulsing.

But with its second season, the show began sacrificing narrative logic for the sake of greater despair:

June spends months reading and editing Serena’s confidential government documents. She didn’t internalize a single fact about Gilead that she could use to her advantage, but Serena was beaten for her transgression.

Serena unites the wives of Gilead so that girls may read. We don’t learn about these characters through this radical shift in ideology, but Serena loses a finger for breaking the law.

Emily is placed in a home with an unusual commander who gives her beer and spares her the “ceremony.” Emily stabs Aunt Lydia, kicks her, and pushes her down the stairs.

This season was short-sighted, doubling back on itself every couple of episodes when progress had the opportunity to grow, because progress is hope and hope is impractical in a show that ran out of its source material after one season. And so Handmaid’s is caught in a hellish cycle of its own making: grief, hope, more grief, repeat.

Perhaps that’s why the unequivocal best part of the season was watching a villain gain empathy. Serena broke the cycle because there was redemption in her struggle. She was always the unintended consequence of her own making, but this season she came to terms with her choices, and used what little power she had to try and create change. Even when she failed, her tragic irony propelled an otherwise skulking season of television.

Just like misunderstanding our desire for dystopian wine, those responsible for The Handmaid’s Tale misunderstand our reasons for watching. They think that all we want to see in this world is pain, when what we’re really searching for in that pain is insight into how to process these atrocities, and how to push through.

Because so little of consequence happened in this season, it’s hard to believe that The Handmaid’s Tale knows what it’s going to be in its third season. Maybe it can rise above a sophomore slump. Maybe it’ll keep spinning its wheels. But, like those midterm elections looming ahead, we may be able to count on some change.