I really wanted to like Carnival Row. Amazon Prime Video’s newest original series has everything I love in media: strong female characters, high fantasy, gritty backdrops, political intrigue, prophecy, magic, complicated lore—but that’s the exact problem. While some shows struggle to give their characters enough plot, this show has entirely too many plots, and too many characters. While that would be fine in a book series (or even a show with a double-digit season arc), eight episodes is too short of a time for showrunners René Echevarria and Travis Beacham to set up any one plot line successfully, let alone the 10 they attempt.
Carnival Row at its core seems to be a story about two lovers from different walks of life, both struggling to deal with an uncaring world—all while trying to solve Jack the Ripper-style killings. That premise itself could be simple, but by the end of the series, even the ‘whodunit’ of the murders becomes a convoluted mess, caught up in the tangles of the other storylines weaving in and out of our main plot.
Both Cara Delevingne (Vignette Stonemoss) and Orlando Bloom (Rycroft Philostrate) do serviceable jobs with their characters, but often they are relegated to storylines that prove fruitless before returning to the main plot.
The strongest episode, “Kingdom of the Moon” is set almost entirely back in Vignette’s home country, providing us with not only information about Vignette and Philo’s relationship, but more lore and backstory into why their world has been so ravaged by war. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m so frustrated with the show–the episode gave me a glimpse of what the show could be, given a simple, settled story. Instead, we’re provided too much surface level information without actually providing any substance. Icing is lovely, but if there is no cake beneath it, one simply gets sick.
While I do appreciate the exploration of prejudice, the immigrant, and what it means to be trapped between two worlds—trying to tackle so much leaves much of the dialogue feeling unnatural and clunky, with characters often acting in ways only to service the plot, instead of logical motivations. I would have deeply appreciated them tossing out the sexual assault/attempted rape plot altogether.
I realize I sound harsh, but this show has such potential; the sets are beautiful, the graphics are seamless, and the cast is truly doing their best with messy scripts. There is so much to like, but there is simply too much of it, and it causes the entirety of the project to fail.
The show has been renewed for a second season, so there is hope that Carnival Row will be able to focus itself and find its footing in the future. It certainly wouldn’t be the first show to stumble but create a solid piece of art in its sophomore effort.
We can only hope that Row will manage to survive this shaky beginning, or else it might find its wings clipped.