Ah, human beings. Even removed from this reality – as in Amazon Studios’ new dark fantasy series Carnival Row – we appear hard-wired to be expansionists, conquerors, enslavers and subsequently, indifferent masters (at best).
The setting is a quasi-Victorian London city shared by both humans and creatures that we consider to be mythical.
These fae (faerie) folk occupied the planet long before people came about, numerous species and cultures living in relative peace in their lands of Tirnanoc and Ignota.
After humanity arose and the explorers and colonists came calling, well, so much for the neighbourhood.
As far as the mature-audiences Carnival Row is concerned, the two great human superpowers – the Pact and the Republic of the Burgue (I’ll leave you to figure out their real-world counterparts) – have already gone to war over Tirnanoc’s riches, and devastated the land and its peoples.
Right at the start, we are told that the Burgue has pulled out of the war, leaving the fae to the mercy of the Pact.
Those fae who were quick, wealthy and connected enough managed to escape to the “safety” of the Burgue, where they are now largely crammed into the area known as … you guessed it, cue title card and theme music please.
Priestesses, guardians, physicians and warriors alike are now forced to accept menial jobs or sell their more exotic talents and qualities to Burguers (“Burgueoisie”?) keen on sampling forbidden fruit.
It’s a hard-knock life, as L’il Orphan Annie and her friends might sing, and indeed, no one cares for the fae a smidge, derisively referring to them as “Critch”.
And, while this is not Earth, the parallels to the fate of the conquered and colonised throughout history are constantly thrust into our faces just to remind us that people suck, especially when they are on top.
Beyond the somewhat obvious social commentary, the series is mainly a noir fantasy-detective yarn mixed with a little political intrigue and class/society drama.
Orlando Bloom, who I watched in the iffy China co-production S.M.A.R.T. Chase just before starting on Carnival Row, plays Rycroft Philostrate, a Burgue detective investigating vicious attacks on fae.
His previous credit left me with some doubts, but Bloom and his collaborators managed to convince me in just the first episode that following this series would not be a D.O.D.G.Y. pursuit.
Carnival Row is also the story of Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a fae refugee who has history with Rycroft and finds human society fairly repugnant.
Their respective tribulations in the Burgue lead them to cross paths with rich and powerful people whose machinations influence most of the goings-on in the first season.
There is also a secondary story arc involving a member of a well-regarded Burgue family and her new, wealthy fae neighbour that you just know is going to develop into a tale of forbidden love from the moment they meet.
With all of these elements, plus some high-level political shenanigans, it is clear that the first season of Carnival Row tries to cram way too much into a scant eight episodes.
Created by Rene Echevarria (Star Trek: The Next Generation, The 4400, Terra Nova) and Travis Beacham (from his unfilmed screenplay A Killing On Carnival Row), the series is not short on ambition.
However, in trying to be too many things at once, it ends up impeding its own progress – fortunately, not too badly.
For starters, it could have taken its foot off the social commentary pedal a bit. Science fiction and fantasy worked well as playing fields for exploring touchy or taboo subjects in times when it was harder to comment directly on them.
But matters are a bit more out in the open these days – and, coming on the heels of series like Warrior, Carnival Row really did not need those constant reminders of man’s inhumanity to … oh, pretty much everything.
The series works best when it focuses on its central mystery, fleshing out Rycroft and Vignette’s respective backstories, and unearthing the culprits behind the nasty deeds afoot.
The world-building is nicely measured, dropping titbits of information that help the viewer gain a sense of the social, cultural and religious aspects of both human and fae society – without shoving too much exposition or background upon us.
The visual effects range from stunning (scenes of fae folk taking flight by the dozens, the evocative setting, some nightmarish monsters) to iffy (drug-induced lycanthropy even less convincing than the beasties from early episodes of Teen Wolf), but generally get the job done.
The watchable Bloom and Delevingne are in solid company too, with strong supporting performances from Tamzin Merchant and David Gyasi as the human-fae couple, Jared Harris and Indira Varma as the Burgue’s power couple, and Simon McBurney as a travelling entertainer thrust into a greater role.
The darker aspects are unsettling yet fascinating, with tangible Lovecraftian elements, and the show quite boldly shakes up the status quo by season’s end – leaving us tantalised and impressed just enough to fancy a return visit to the Row.
All eight episodes of Carnival Row Season One are available on Amazon Prime Video.