Carnival Row tv series

by stephenpalmersf

My second recent television series was Carnival Row, first broadcast by Amazon Prime in 2019.

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This review contains spoilers and is of the entire 8 episode series.

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What would happen if refugee Fae from Tirnanoc were racially abused and discriminated against? What if they suffered violence at the hands of another people in a foreign land? This is the premise of the eight-part television series Carnival Row.

The setting is basically nineteenth century London with added Fae, Pucks and other sundry fantasy folk. Orlando Bloom plays a detective investigating a series of grisly murders in the Burgh, but this main character has a secret which puts him in a dangerous position, one symbolised by his Fae lover (played by Carla Delevigne) and his human one. Elsewhere there is much by way of politics, not least because the underlying theme of this series is racism. All fantasy races are discriminated against. Pucks are not allowed into polite society, being servants or other working classes. Fae are outsiders in all regards. Religion also plays a part – there’s a form of Christianity with a hanged martyr.

There’s a lot to like about this series, not least the theme. Too rarely do we see such clear explorations and depictions of casual racism. But there’s humour, wit, and plenty of twists and turns too. The pace of the thing is good, with episodes three and four being terrific flashbacks from which the latter half of the series then proceeds. Visually it’s stunning, with the grimy, dark city superbly photographed.

As the series progressed however I began to become aware of a flaw in the concept. For me, Carnival Row is a mash-up too far. The nineteenth century stuff is fantastic, anchoring the plot, but the Fae – winged, and that just doesn’t work – are to my mind bolted on. The wingless Puck aren’t so obvious a bolt-on, I think because they seem to fit in better. The series is the television equivalent of wizards in spaceships: fun, possibly, for half an hour, but entirely lacking depth and stylistic coherence.

Having said that, the acting was terrific and the scenario overall was enjoyable. I do think Orlando Bloom was perhaps a little too restrained in his performance – monochrome with hints of sepia – though Delevigne was superb. The supporting cast also contained gems, notably the racist policeman and the delightful posh girl/Puck-made-good couple who provide a lot of the wit and humour. I watched the series to its end, and wanted to find out how it ended – and it finished with a great plot twist.

Yet I remain ambivalent about the thing as a whole. Two halves too disparate are patched together here. It’s rather appropriate that the concept of the Darkasher represents the series as a whole – created from dissimilar parts and only animated by force of will. How ironic!