Amazon Prime Review – Carnival Row: Great Visuals, Good Storytelling, Classic Metaphor

Amazon gives us a new urban fantasy series with a few fresh takes on old tropes.


Fairies, Trolls, Satyrs (“Pucks”) and other such things are real, they come from the lands of the Fae. Humans plundered the Fae lands, started a war, and ended up abandoning the Fae to their mortal enemies “the Pact.” Because of this, the Fae flee to the closest human empire, Burgue. Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) is a war veteran who works as an inspector for the local constabulary. Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) is a former soldier in the Fae army and Philo’s former lover who thinks he’s dead. Vignette flees from the Fae lands and ends up in the Burgue capital city where Philo now works to track down a serial murderer or two. As racial tensions are rising in the land, Philo and Vignette seem to be caught in the middle of everything. Because they’re the main characters and that’s how it works.

CarnivalRow - 1Leads
Their child will be beautiful. 


So, there are a lot of good things in this show. First, the show looks fantastic. Despite the amount of CGI they’ve had to blend in with practical effects, the visuals very rarely look unnatural, and those that do are typically SUPPOSED to look unnatural. The city looks like a 1910s Urban Fantasy and it really helps to give the setting an identity, something that any alternate history setting needs. The ways in which the fantasy characters have adapted to their new lifestyle and locale are clever, if at times a little crude (I admit that people probably would pay for fairie prostitutes, but it’s weird that they seem so cheap). It’s also odd that the humans understand the advantages of using some of the abilities of the magical creatures (using fairies to reconnect down telegraph wires, for example), but they don’t really exploit them very well. The show implies that the reason is just pure discrimination and, while that might fight the narrative, I just find it odd that any business would forego having flying delivery people or superhumanly strong laborers in the name of racism… or I would if so many industries have in the past foregone advanced employees because of it. Bigotry is one of the few things that really can outperform human greed. Which brings us to the themes of the show…

CarnivalRow - 2Boom.png
Surprisingly, “War is Hell” is relatively low on the list.

Hey, humans can be racist and hate things they don’t understand and can be classist and all the other morals that five million previous urban fantasy novels and shows have told us previously. It’s not particularly new, is what I’m saying. While the theme may be old, the show does try to show us a multitude of viewpoints of people dealing with it, with a particularly interesting one being the story of Agreus (David Gyasi), a very wealthy Puck, and Imogen (Tamzin Merchant), a broke heiress who offers to take money from him in exchange for granting him social status. While that is itself an old story (and the subject of William Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress), this combines it with the element of interracial romance (even if it’s for money). The show demonstrates that Agreus does not have sympathy for any of the other fae, because he believes that he made it on his own, therefore he doesn’t believe the others are being suppressed… until finally he runs into an issue where his wealth cannot buy past his race. In addition, the show demonstrates the conflicts arising from the recent influx of refugees on every level, from local workers to employers to law enforcement to lawmakers. While it definitely appears to be based primarily on the English Immigrant Debate from the late 60s, including having a version of the “Rivers of Blood” speech, it holds up as a representation of almost any country’s debate of such an issue. Much like any of those times, too, the show demonstrates that while some people do believe in discriminating, others merely state the talking point because it allows them to claim the support of the regressive elements of the country.

CarnivalRow - 3Agreus
Oh, and skin color is ALSO a thing in this world, so double lesson.

The biggest flaw in the series is that the “mystery” is basically answered in the first 3 episodes if you’re paying attention closely. While it’s still a decent narrative, it doesn’t feel like much of a reveal at the end when you’ve been waiting 5 hours to confirm what you already know. Still, the fact that it holds up even if you know what’s going to happen is a sign of decent storytelling.

Overall, the show’s pretty good. It’s not quite what I was hoping it would be, but it’s still worth watching if you like urban fantasy. I get why critics are down on it for the overused metaphor and the lousy dialogue, but I enjoyed it, so screw them.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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