‘Carnival Row’ is a Little Steamy, a Little Punky, and Pretty Stupid
There are two kinds of people in this world: those whose ears will perk up when they hear that a TV show’s main character is name “Rycroft Philostrate”, and the rest of us. If you’re a fan of steampunk, the subgenre that combines sci-fi and fantasy and adds lots and lots of goggles, you might be interested in Amazon Prime’s Carnival Row. If you’re not, it’s a tough sell.
When thinking about how best to approach writing about Carnival Row, two things came to mind: Lost, and the phrase Of Course. Lost premiered 15 years ago this past Sunday, and for better or worse changed the TV landscape. Serialized, weird-ass science-fantasy TV instantly became A Thing, and networks all struggled and continue to struggle to come up with The Next Lost–a show that, when described to friends, sounds completely Bug-Fuck Crazy. “There’s this tropical island with polar bears and a Smoke Monster and some immortal guy named Jacob, and in one of the episodes there’s a flashback to when the heroine staged this epic bank robbery just to steal a toy plane out of the vault–best show on TV, you gotta see it!” Every year, there’s at least one new High Concept Serialized Genre Show, and they nearly all die a quick death.
Carnival Row, which premiered on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago–or rather, Amazon Prime dumped it in its entirety a few weeks ago, so when it dies its death, it’ll at least have lived a full season–is the kind of show that raises the Bug-Fuck Crazy Serialized Genre Show bar to Olympic pole vault-levels. It sounds like a writer’s room dare. “Ok, so it’s Victorian-era London, but NOT–like, there’s smokestacks and street urchins and whores, but…BUT…there are AIRSHIPS and ELVES and some of the whores are FAWNS, like in the Narnia books–kinky, right?–and…what? Of COURSE Orlando Bloom is the star! Who ELSE is gonna play a guy named Rycroft Philostrate?”
Carnival Row is an Of Course show. That same Writer’s Room absolutely saw someone yell “Dudes, what about noted character actor Jared Harris…but WITH A PET BEAR?!”, and thus Carnival Row absolutely cast Jared Harris, and of course his character has a pet bear, and of course his character’s name is Absalom Breakspear. If everything that I have described–oh, I forgot that real-life Elf Cara Delevigne plays a Fae named Vignette Stonemoss, because of course she does–sounds remotely appealing to you, then you should absolutely watch Carnival Row.
It is full of crazy steampunk stuff, and much of it is fun to look at. This is not to say that it’s a good show. It’s a show of Stuff–how much Stuff can be stuffed into an episode, a season, a series. The plot has something to do with humans taking over the Fae lands and treating them like second-class citizens, and forcing them to live in the ghetto called Carnival Row. Oh, and there’s a murderer killing magical creatures and humans alike in Dickensian King’s Landing, because of course there is. If things like Victorian airships and excellent actors slumming it with CGI bears appeal to you, but you want to watch those kinds of things in a show with an interesting storyline and fleshed-out characters, I’ll recommend that you save your bandwidth for HBO’s upcoming His Dark Materials show. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s in it, because…well.