Ever since the ending of the tumultuous final season of Game of Thrones, networks and streaming sites have been scrambling to find a replacement for it in the culture. HBO is trying to keep its hat in the ring with the Game of Thrones prequel, a Watchman series based on the comic, and the fantasy adaption of the His Dark Materials series. Netflix has the upcoming The Witcher, and Amazon Prime now has Carnival Row, premiering on the streaming platform this Labor Day weekend. If you are like me, you have a white walker sized hole in your television loving heart and while Carnival Row doesn’t fit the frame perfectly, it does its best to satisfy the craving, while making something new.
Taking place in a fantasy world, the Burgue (representing a Victorian London) has become an immigrant hub for fae, (magical creatures including fairies, trolls, and fawns) refugees and immigrants. Instead of thriving in their new surroundings, many are forced into lesser professions and can’t afford to live anywhere else than Carnival Row, a substitute for a Skid Row. New arrival Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a fairy, is forced to leave her destroyed homeland behind for the Burgue, only to discover that her human true love, who she thought was dead, left to protect her. Now an inspector, that man Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) is trying to apprehend a killer, seemingly targeting fae folk. As “racial” tensions rise and Philo’s own past called into question, Philo and Vignette try to survive and navigate love in this racist and oppressive society.
Creators Travis Beacham and René Echevarria, writers of Pacific Rim and Star Trek: The Next Generation respectively, have essentially made a solid foundation for a second season, due out next year. The mystery surrounding this season is hokey at times and immolates Game of Thrones more than it intended to, complete with a Lannister like family. What they do well is establish the lore and social dynamics of this world, despite being the borderline preachy at times. The best episode, episode 3, ‘The Kingdoms of the Moon’, epitomizes this, taking us back to when and where Philo and Vignette met in Vignette’s homeland. The lore introduced is intertwined with the story and we see more depth to the character than we have in the previous two episodes.
The biggest non-spoiler thing that Carnival Row tries to do that Game of Thrones excelled at is the intertwining of philosophical ideals with fantasy elements. To quote Parks and Rec’s Ben Wyatt, “they are telling human stories in a fantasy world,” which contributed to the shows wide appeal. Carnival Row does the same thing here, with allegories for racism, fascism, and even family separation at the forefront of the storytelling. The fae, basically a term for all nonhuman creatures, could represent any marginalized group of the last 150 years in America’s history alone, not even counting world history. The allegory is not seamlessly woven into the narrative and the clunky dialogue can seem trite at times However the story is engaging when it focuses on individual relationships and characters and not on these broad concepts, the relationship between Philo and Vignette being the primary example.
Upon finishing the series, the Game of Thrones similarities seem glaring more obvious. However, since art should stand on its own, the series as a whole is pretty solid. On his own Bloom’s performance can seem a little grating and melodramatic, but when paired with Delavigne, creates a chemistry and warmth that carry the show to a satisfying finale. Despite the philosophical heart being slightly convoluted and muddled, the show is dazzling to watch for its production value alone. Adding a fantastical element to the Victorian period, the show’s costumes, hair, set design, and production design provide the show with enough visual magic to keep watching.
Final Grade: B-