TV Review: Carnival Row

Last Updated on February 10, 2023

TV Review, Carnival Row, Orlando Bloom, Amazon Prime, Cara Delevigne, Fantasy, War, Mystery, Noir, Jared Harris

Synopsis: Set in a Victorian fantasy world filled with mythological immigrant creatures whose exotic homelands were invaded by the empires of man. This growing population struggles to coexist with humans — forbidden to live, love, or fly with freedom. But even in darkness, hope lives, as a human detective, Rycroft Philostrate, and a refugee faerie named Vignette Stonemoss rekindle a dangerous affair despite an increasingly intolerant society. Vignette harbors a secret that endangers Philo’s world during his most important case yet: a string of gruesome murders threatening the uneasy peace of the Row.

TV Review, Carnival Row, Orlando Bloom, Amazon Prime, Cara Delevigne, Fantasy, War, Mystery, Noir, Jared Harris

Review: At this year’s San Diego Comic Con, Amazon Prime had a major presence with a lot of marketing put on their latest series, Carnival Row. While The Boys recently debuted to big viewership, this much more niche fantasy series may have a bigger challenge. Luckily, with high production values and big name leads in the form of Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevigne, Carnival Row is a solid period drama with elements of fantasy storytelling, romance, and lots of nudity and gore. Think of David Ayer‘s BRIGHT crossed with Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and you get the idea of what Carnival Row is going for.

Set in a fictional Victorian world that looks eerily similar to New York City or London in the late 1800s, Carnival Row is based on an unproduced screenplay by Travis Beacham (PACIFIC RIM, CLASH OF THE TITANS) and developed with showrunner Rene Echevarria (Terra Nova, The 4400). Originally set to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro, the series proceeded without him and thus his trademark style is nowhere to be found. But, from the character design of the various creatures, you can still see echoes of what Del Toro may have brought to the project. Even without his involvement, Carnival Row is a deeply immersive world that, like most fantasy stories, require you to pay attention to the names of creatures, cities, countries, and slang. Even if you fail to tell the difference between the horned creatures versus the winged ones, the story is something you can pick up the broad strokes of as the themes and messages of Carnival Row are not very subtle.

Directed by John Amiel (COPYCAT, ENTRAPMENT), Carnival Row drops us into a world where warring countries vie for the homeland of a race of mythical fairy creatures known as the Fae. Vignette (Cara Delevigne) works to help her people escape to the freedom of The Burge but soon learns that life in the new world is that of indentured servitude. Vignette also mourns the loss of her lover, a Burge soldier named Philo (Orlando Bloom) who is, unbeknownst to her, alive in The Burge. Philo is also a respected police officer who is sympathetic to the displaced minorities living in the slum known as Carnival Row. Philo is also investigating a series of ghastly murders of Fae folk by a man called Unseelie Jack. As the series progresses, Philo and Vignette’s stories collide along with those of several other characters, human and non.

The treatment of the Fae folk, whether they be winged or horned, is blatantly paralleled against the way the Irish and African slaves were treated in England and North America during the 19th century. They have to work as servants to pay their passage to freedom or choose to live lives as criminals, drug dealers, or whores. The humans look down upon these foreigners with disdain and judgement even as some ingratiate themselves into society. David Gyasi portrays Agreus who develops a relationship with the human Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) to the chagrin of her brother Ezra (Andrew Gower). We also see the animosity from the police forces and political leadership, including Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) and his wife Piety (Indira Varma). The cast here truly are an ensemble with even relative newcomers Anna Rust and Karla Crome fleshing out their supporting roles.

TV Review, Carnival Row, Orlando Bloom, Amazon Prime, Cara Delevigne, Fantasy, War, Mystery, Noir, Jared Harris

Over the eight episodes first season, the story develops quickly to showcase the wartorn homeland of the Fae folk before shifting to The Burge. While the fantasy elements do include small gremlin like creatures called cobalts, the flying Fae folk as well as other monstrous surprises through the season, this is a relatively grounded drama. The mysterious serial killings that echo the Jack the Ripper murders deepen the plot, but it is the character work led by Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevigne that makes this show interesting. If not for seeing characters with horns in almost every scene, you could easily take this as a period drama dealing with political and racial themes in a real world setting. As a testament to Travis Beacham‘s original story, Carnival Row comes across as a fully realized world that doesn’t play like anything else currently on television.

But, while Carnival Row isn’t like anything else on TV, it also doesn’t have enough of a punch to really draw you in. There is an exciting battle sequence in the first episode but it then takes almost the full hour before we get another energetic sequence to rival it. While the second half of the season definitely picks up momentum, this is a show that slowly builds characters and their relationships to one another and takes a deliberate amount of time to do so. There is enough gore and nudity along the way to keep your attention, but Carnival Row doesn’t spoon feed explanations as to who characters are or what makes them unique or distinct. Expect to pay attention to every episode to try and keep the roster of fantasy names straight. I can easily see Carnival Row developing a dedicated fanbase and has the potential to breakout into a mainstream hit, but with the very adult-oriented format and subject matter, this may be a show for a very specific audience.

Carnival Row premeiers August 30th on Amazon Prime.




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About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.