Monday, September 16, 2019

What did I just watch? A Carnival Row discussion

Happy Monday! Normally a review of a TV show would be included in my monthly Saturday Screen Time feature, but this one felt like it needed a bit more room for discussion. I recently finished Carnival Row and was... underwhelmed. This post will be split into a non-spoiler review and a spoilery discussion in case you haven't watched yet!


At the end of August Carnival Row was released on Amazon Prime. I'd been hearing buzz about this show for months so of course I was intrigued when it finally popped up as available to watch! I didn't have much in the way of expectations. I haven't enjoyed Cara Delevingne in anything I've seen her in (and I was surprised she was a main character in this show) and I haven't seen Orlando Bloom in much since the mid-2000s, but have always enjoyed him. All that to say I went in not expecting much, but hoping to be impressed.

Right off the bat I had a hard time getting into this show. The first episode was extremely slow and, while (mostly) pretty to look at, there didn't seem to be much substance. Still, I gave it one more episode, then one more. Everyone said that the third episode was the best of the bunch and would absolutely hook me! Episode three did show the backstory, but it was rushed through and didn't seem to lend much to the overall story beyond setting up the relationship between Philo (Bloom) and Vignette (Delevingne).

Carnival Row is a rare example of a show that is trying to do way too much while also not accomplishing a whole lot. Philo is a police officer living in the Burge who had a previous relationship with Vignette, a fae, during the war seven years prior. Philo faked his death to keep Vignette safe, which she discovers when she arrives in the Burge after she's chased away from her home. Their relationship doesn't have much to it, having ended years earlier, but they try to convince the viewer for eight episodes that they actually still love each other. Their chemistry is non-existent and their romance doesn't add anything to the story, which, despite the show's marketing, is all about Philo.

This is really a murder mystery at its core. There's also tons of infighting between politicians, bickering amongst a few families, extreme racism against the fae by literally everyone except Philo, Lovecraftian monsters, steampunk technology, magic, and a random Pride and Prejudice retelling between characters with nothing else to do with the plot. It's a lot. And yet it's unbearably slow until the last two episodes. At that point everything happens so fast that I have to wonder why this wasn't spread a bit more evenly. I actually feel that this season could have been split in two with much more backstory about the war between the fae and humans.

I wanted to love this show, even if I didn't expect to, but I definitely didn't expect to dislike it as much as I did. There was a ton of promise, but Carnival Row was simultaneously too much and too little. This is definitely a case of style over substance and I truly wish Guillermo del Toro had been the one at the helm as he was rumored to be originally.


The random werewolves in episode three seemed to be setting up something bigger but never was mentioned again.

The Pact - what even is it? Who are they? They're there in episode three as the Big Bad that bring Philo and Vignette together, but then what? Apparently they weren't a big obstacle considering the library was recovered.

The romance between Imogen and Agreus happened entirely too quickly to be believable. Someone figured out that the story must have taken place over about ten days (excluding episode three). In that time, Imogen went from being extremely racist against pucks to having an affair with him, to leaving her home and family behind to sail off with him into the sunset. This plot line didn't seem to fit within the bigger story, but if it was going to exist I wish it had had more time to develop.

Piety's motivations - what were they exactly? Was it just that she wanted her son to do great things? How does that tie into kidnapping her own son and killing a bunch of people related to Philo, as well as her husband? It was so over the top and unbelievable.

Who even is Sophie?

The sex and violence in this show were probably the most gratuitous and unnecessary I've ever seen. I have no issue with sex and violence in television, but the scenes in Carnival Row seem to have been put there for shock value or to keep up with other popular shows. Did we really need to see a man with goat legs having sex with a woman against a wall? Did we really need to see intestines pulled out of literally every murder victim (there were several)? Was there any reason we needed to see Vignette awkwardly balancing to sit on top of Philo in a cave? Does ANYONE in this universe own a bed?


I just don't understand the whole thing. There were parts that I liked, of course. I enjoyed the backstory of the war between the races like most everyone else, but I wish the rest of the show had been a little more cohesive. Is it a murder mystery? Is it a period romance? Is it steampunk? Is it Lovecraftian horror? Is it a political drama? What is this show??

My hope is that season two will be more polished, but at this point I'm honestly not sure I'll watch it.

Have you seen Carnival Row yet?
Did you love or hate it?
Let me know in the comments!