There’s a scene in Carnival Row‘s first episode in which affluent siblings Imogen (Tamzin Merchant) and Ezra Spurnrose (Andrew Gower), curious to find out who purchased the largest home on their block, appear unannounced at their mysterious new neighbor’s doorstep. They are greeted by a tall, dark-skinned, regal faun who, with a hint of glee in his eyes, affirms his status as the man of the household after the duo mistakes him for a servant. Rarely in fantasy are brown and black people allowed to exist, let alone take up the figurative and literal real estate that Agreus (Interstellar‘s David Gyasi) does in Carnival Row, Amazon’s long-delayed Victorian fantasy noir from Pacific Rim screenwriter Travis Beacham and producer René Echevarria. What’s frustrating, then, is that the rest of the series, which grounds itself in the social issues that resonate in today’s world, isn’t nearly as interested in delving into the nuanced racial dynamics teased in this memorable introduction.
Set during a period of social upheaval in which humans have invaded the exotic homelands of mythological creatures like faeries and werewolves, Carnival Row follows the struggle for these immigrant magical beings to coexist with the very people who’ve stripped away most of their rights. But for a series that is at once a political drama, a murder mystery, and an erotic love story, it’s dull. The show’s alluring plot, which boasts steamy scenes likes a mid-air romp between a faerie and a human, flounders under a slow, almost stagnant script that’s more concerned with saying that things are bad instead of getting into the nitty gritty of why and how they got there. It’s a character-driven drama where the characters aren’t given interesting things to say, and so we’re left with a series of dry, forgettable moments that all bleed together.
That’s not to say Amazon’s Dickensian drama is a lost cause. Vibrant costumes, stunning sets, and sensual scenes reminiscent of Brassaï’s iconic photographs bring this drably written series to life, as does the show’s charismatic ensemble. Orlando Bloom exudes Big Billycock Energy as Rycroft Philostrate, the human detective investigating a string of gruesome, Jack the Ripper-style murders targeting the faerie community. Though emotionally reserved, Philo is a man of the people and spends roughly 15 percent of his screen time punching bigots, which is refreshing. Cara Delevingne brings both a fierceness and a lovely vulnerability to Vignette Stonemoss, the refugee faerie who leaves her homeland after believing Philo to be dead. The show’s expansive story and large cast take up so much real estate that Delevingne and Bloom’s onscreen love story, which is told mostly through flashbacks, isn’t given the attention it deserves. But the sparks are there, and both Delevingne and Bloom shine as romantic leads.
Equally charming are the show’s peripheral players, like Merchant’s Imogen, a flighty social climber who’s much smarter than she gets credit for; the cunning Piety Breakspear (Game of Thrones‘ Indira Varma), a ruthless matriarch not unlike Cersei Lannister; philandering playboy Jonah Breakspear (Arty Froushan); Caroline Ford’s delectably sinister political schemer, Sophie Longerbane; and the delightful fae poet Tourmaline Larou, played by Under the Dome alum Karla Crome, who illuminates the screen. Plus, Gyasi is simply exquisite as Agreus, the impeccably dressed faun who relishes in disrupting the social order of the elite society he has infiltrated. But although he is a welcome presence, his story — and that of the show’s other magical beings — represents the show’s most egregious shortcoming.
Carnival Row‘s biggest problem isn’t that it’s overtly political; it’s that this political drama anchored in a fantasy setting uses allegories for racism without tackling the issue head on. In the pilot episode, a Trump-like figure riles up his energized followers with violent rhetoric toward the magical immigrants who are “invading” their lands. And throughout the series, Agreus, the show’s sole dark-skinned lead, is met with contention from wealthy neighbors like Imogen not because of the color of his skin, but rather because of his genetic makeup. The series posits a color-blind world in which humans are intolerant of magical creatures but not of each other, as if to say hatred can’t be intersectional. This overly simplistic approach ignores other manifestations of hate, such as colorism, which, if we’re going by the real-world issues adopted in Carnival Row, exists both within those specific mythological communities and in the rest of the world — including the paranoid extremist humans at those secret rallies. In focusing on a singular form of discrimination, the series bypasses any substantial discussion on race and becomes yet another boring, white-washed explainer.
It’s an ongoing issue in mainstream fantasy, which hasn’t quite grasped how to incorporate diverse characters into those imaginative but homogeneous worlds in a way that’s both natural and authentic. For all of J.K. Rowling’s masterful world building with Harry Potter, she overlooked the nuanced experiences of her black and brown students, whose histories are likely rooted in rebellion and perseverance, and those auxiliary characters were shoehorned into the series in a phony attempt at diversity. In that same vein, Carnival Row’s metaphorical racism lobbied against a predominately white magical community rings just as empty.
Amazon has already renewed the series for Season 2, giving it another shot to address its shortcomings and hopefully deliver something truly unique and worthwhile. By no means does Carnival Row fall among the worst of television, but its lackluster first season doesn’t hold up against a competitive TV space teeming with much better shows.
Carnival Row premieres Friday, Aug. 30 on Amazon.