And so we have the premiere of yet another "summer" show. A term which is becoming increasingly meaningless. Amazon Prime runs the series, and dropped all eight episodes on August 30 2019. Whether a show gets dropped on a streaming service in September, or January, or May, or August, matters less and less.
So what is Carnival Row? It's an alt-world 19th century stab at the mixing of the fantastical and the mundane. Before most creative teams have attempted the merging in the modern day, hoping to emulate the success of The Dresden Files, the novels, not the one-season SyFy TV series. We've had products like the 17th Precinct pilot, and the Will Smith 2017 movie Bright.
Carnival Row seemingly reuses the sets from shows like Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street to give us a grimy steampunk version of 19th century London. In this alt setting, the Fae world and the human world are one big world. The Fae have been driven out of their homeland by The Pact, and take refuge in The Burgue. Which looks a lot like 19th century London and has all the tropes of the setting: ironclads, sailors, bobbies, bowler hats, prostitutes in the kind of outfits you pay top-dollar for at Victoria's Secret. Or *ahem* so I'm told.
We get hit over the head with the immigration/anti-immigration message of 2019, since the Fae or not welcome visitors. They're taking jobs from Burguishmen, or so the rabble-rousers say. And even when they're tolerated, it's with a great deal of prejudice. "Carnival Row" refers to the ghetto district where the Fae are mostly confined to when they're not working as (mostly) servants to the humans. At least in the first episode, there are two primary Fae: the winged Fae who walk around with rather listless wings on their back when they're not flying or having sex. And a horned-and-cloven-hoofed group. We also see a centaur type and a few others in the background.
Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) is a winged Fae who helps get refugees out of the Fae homeland. When a camp of women and little girls are wiped out by the Pact, Vignette realizes that it's hopeless and takes the next boat to The Burgue. It sinks at sea and Vignette is the only survivor. The only thing she has after the sinking are the clothes on her back and her "widow's braid". We see her with a photo of a soldier (Orlando Bloom).
Bloom plays Rycroft "Philo" Philostrate, an inspector in The Burgue. In the premiere episode, he's on the case of "Unseelie Jack", a killer who only attacks Fae. One survivor describes him as bald with muttonchops, wearing a uniform, and possessing a snake tattoo on his arm.
Vignette ends up working for the ship owner, Ezra Spurnrose (Andrew Gower), as a maid to Ezra's sister Imogen (Tamzin Merchant). Imogen is a casual bigot, and the horned house maid is loyal to the Spurnroses, happy to have a job where many Fae are going without, and tells Vignette to mind her place while strapping her into a wing-binding corset.
After meeting her friend Tourmaline (Karla Crome), who is working as a prostitute, Vignette learns that Philo is alive. She hunts him down, puts a knife to his throat, and wants to know why he let her think he was dead before fleeing the Fae Homelands and the Pact war to return to The Burgue. This being the first episode, we don’t find out why. Instead Vignette lets Philo live and leaves.
During all of this, Philo hunts for Unseelie Jack. After suspecting a bigoted copper, Philo finally realizes that Jack is a sailor who only kills every three weeks because that's when his ship comes in. He hunts down the man, finds him pretty readily, and after a rooftop chase, Jack tells Philo the Fae have brought a dark god with them. Jack then jumps to his death, having said his enigmatic piece.
Along the way, Imogen is on her new neighbor like white on rice. Until she meets him face-to-face and discovers that he's one of the horned Fae, Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi). Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) is a leading proponent of the Fae living among them. Whether he actually is or if it's politics isn't clear. He has a wife, Piety (Indira Varma) and son, Jonah (Arty Froushan), and his political rival suggests that Absalom has been involved with Fae prostitutes. Whether this means Jonah is legitimate or half-blooded remains to be seen. Jonah consorts with Fae prostitutes, including Tourmaline, and maybe that's what the rival was talking about. A couple of men abduct Jonah at the Fae brothel near the end of the pilot.
Caroline Ford and Simon McBurney are also in Carnival Row but don't appear in the first episode.
Much of the first episode, "Some Dark God Wakes", is taken up with world-building. We're introduced to the Fae, the War, the Pact, The Burgue aka pseudo-Victorian London, and most of the main characters. There's lot of imagery--Fae flutter their wings, the opening title card explanation features images of the Fae fighting 19th century human soldiers, cats and dogs and Fae living together--but no answers. Philo hints at dark secrets in his past after he has sex with his landlady, Portia (Maeve Dermody), who has a thing for Philo but hates the fact he's not sensitive enough to talk about his feelings and what happened to him during the War.
And yes, it's a streaming service so there's bits of nudity and sex. Philo and Portia have at it, there's lots of Victorian-style trousers-barely-dropped sex, and the Fae prostitutes fly up into the air with their customers as they orgasm.
There's not a lot of plot: the hunt for Jack and Vignette arriving in The Burgue are the big parts of the episode. Which presumably set the show up to explore the Dark God and Vignette's relationship with Philo while working as a maid for a rich family. There are cryptic hints about the Breakspears' and the Spurnroses' backstories.
The acting is... okay. Orlando Bloom is all gravelly-voiced and hard man as Philo. Delevingne has a sullen presence and switches between lady's maid and ruthless huntress very well. Everyone else is very... well, British. Stiff upper lipped on the outside, seething on the inside. Except for Jonah, who is the wastrel son.
Other than being set in a pseudo-19th century London, there's not a lot to set Carnival Row apart from the aforementioned 17th Precinct and Bright. There are hints of a darker evil behind the Fae, but in these kinds of shows (and even in older-but-similar shows like Alien Nation), there always are.
There is enough here to keep the viewer interested. If they're an Anglophile and like the alt-world concept. Fortunately, I do. I'll watch the next seven episodes of season 1, and probably do an end-of-season wrap-up review since that's why I get paid the big bucks. Carnival Row is enough to hold my interest, but I figured it would be or I wouldn't have started watching it in the first place. There's nothing to make me shrug my shoulders and walk away, but there rarely is. A show has to be pretty bad, or totally different from what I expected, for me to abandon it. And Carnival Row is what I expected: an alt-setting, Fae flying around, 19th-century London stylings, lots of Downton Abbey-style British shenanigans.
No magic yet, although there are hints of it starting with the Dark God itself. It reminds me a bit of Cleverman, which also took the approach of the "Hairy Men" being an alternate race (and with their own Dark God) that weren't necessarily magical beings... but they kinda were. And kinda weren't.
Check it out if you like that kind of thing. But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?
Written by Gislef on Sep 1, 2019