In its efforts to create a major fantasy franchise to rival HBO's Game of Thrones, Amazon has snatched up rights to major properties like The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time. However, the wholly original Carnival Row is the company's first large-scale fantasy series to make it to audiences, and it's a promising start to a show that combines familiar elements in a creative way. Although it's set in a land populated by magical creatures and it focuses on sex, violence and political machinations, Carnival Row isn't a Game of Thrones imitator, instead carving its own identity out of longstanding genre traditions.
The primary setting is The Burgue, which roughly corresponds to Victorian London, with comparable technology (horses and buggies, gas lamps) and fashions, and a similar level of grit and corruption. Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) is a police detective investigating grisly murders that at first seem like this world's version of Jack the Ripper. But The Burgue isn't populated only by humans; the city is also a hub for refugees from the mystical land of Tirnanoc, where soldiers from The Burgue and their rival, The Pact, have waged war for years, with magical races caught in the middle.
Philo (as he's known) was a soldier for The Burgue for many years, and while deployed in Tirnanoc, he fell in love with a faerie named Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), whose memory he's spent seven years trying to shake. When Vignette unexpectedly arrives in The Burgue, they're thrust back together, although they've gone from lovers to wary antagonists. Vignette quickly takes up with the fae criminal elements in the city's seedy Carnival Row district, while Philo alienates both his bigoted human colleagues and the distrustful fae in his efforts to get to the bottom of the increasingly disturbing and elaborate killings.
Creators Travis Beacham (whose original Carnival Row feature screenplay made the 2005 Black List) and René Echevarria (whose credits include Dark Angel, The 4400 and multiple Star Trek series) throw the audience right into the middle of their carefully constructed world. While the first episode opens with the kind of stultifying info-dump title cards that often mark bad fantasy, the series is more nuanced than that, and characters frequently drop bits of jargon and background details that can only be understood through context.
Beyond the central murder mystery, Carnival Row also features storylines about The Burgue's embattled chancellor, Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris), and about a brother-and-sister pair of nobles whose declining finances might be saved by the attentions of one of the faun-like creatures known as pucks. Breakspear's storyline most closely resembles the court intrigue of Game of Thrones, while the Spurnrose siblings' highly ritualized social circle borrows from both Jane Austen and Downton Abbey.
The disparate elements can be a bit jarring at first, with Dickensian squalor one minute and werewolf attacks the next. There are steampunk-style airships and World War I military tactics in the war between The Burgue and The Pact. The arguments in The Burgue's parliament over whether fae refugees should be welcomed into society have obvious present-day resonance, and some of the speeches from Breakspear's opponents are so on the nose they might as well be advocating to make The Burgue great again.
The social commentary isn't always effective, but the world-building is, and the characters are interesting even when the narrative sags (the murder mystery in particular lacks momentum). Bloom and Delevingne have strong chemistry (both romantic and adversarial), and Harris brings his typical gravitas and vulnerability to the role of the self-doubting leader. The Austen-style upper-crust romance subplot is the most disconnected from the main story, but it also provides some unexpected delights (and much-needed comic relief).
The show's look is just as intricate as its backstory, and the effects budget is mostly put to good use. The Burgue feels like a real, lived-in place, with plenty of grime and activity, and the sense that new creatures and new stories lie around every corner. Some of the creature design is a bit dodgy, though; the faerie's wings hang on their backs like jacket flaps when not in use, and the horns on the heads of the pucks fit awkwardly around their hair and facial features. Still, the show is impressively immersive, and the committed performances help strengthen the suspension of disbelief.
Amazon has already picked up Carnival Row for a second season, and Beacham and Echevarria really only scratch the surface of the world they've presented here. The cast of characters is much smaller than on Game of Thrones, with Philo and Vignette clearly at the center of the story, but there's no reason future seasons couldn't expand the narrative and the cast considerably, focusing on other races or even other lands that have only been hinted at thus far. It may not have the name recognition of The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time, but Carnival Row deserves its place in the burgeoning fantasy-TV landscape.
Starring Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, David Gyasi, Tamzin Merchant, Andrew Gower, Karla Crome, Arty Froushan, Caroline Ford, Simon McBurney, Indira Varma and Jared Harris, the eight-episode first season of Carnival Row arrives Friday on Amazon.