Why new show is being compared to GoT
When Game of Thrones ended, it left a vacuum that many shows hoped to fill. Who wouldn't want to be the next cultural phenomena?
The easiest path is to be an expensive and grand fantasy series with convoluted plots and moral greyness. Hollywood knows that the genres that used to be at the margins - fantasy, sci-fi - are now thoroughly in the mainstream.
Want audiences? CGI in a dragon and add in some characters with names like Rycroft Philostrade and Vignette Stonemoss.
Well, there are no dragons in Carnival Row, but there are fairies, horned creatures called pucks, and sorcerers who can work dark magic. Plus, family secrets. Oh yes, we do love those family secrets and solving the mysterious parentage of our orphaned hero. Sound familiar?
Borrowing its steampunk aesthetic from Victorian England, Carnival Row is set in a beleaguered city called The Burgue. Simmering tension between its human residents and its magical refugees are about to boil over.
It's an unmistakeable analogy for not just our present-day sociopolitical climate around immigration, but really, pick any moment in history and you'll find that tussle.
Orlando Bloom plays Philostrade or, as he's known, Philo, a detective inspector investigating a series of grisly murders in which the victims' insides are splayed out. Philo is the one with the mysterious parentage, having been abandoned as a baby.
In a police force full of gruff men with ample prejudices, Philo is a rare, empathetic soul. He was a former soldier in the war The Burgue fought against The Pact, the same war that displaced the winged fae.
During that war, which we see in flashback in episode three, Philo met Vignette (Cara Delevingne), a fae tasked with guarding a secret library who then becomes a revolutionary fighter of sorts, helping fae escape The Pact as a people smuggler.
When Vignette arrives in The Burgue, she's shocked to find out Philo, who she was told died in the war, is very much alive.
Elsewhere, there are about three other subplots, including the arrival of a moneyed puck, Agreus (David Gyasi) as the new resident of a posh house in a ritzy neighbourhood which scandalises the old-money humans.
To its credit, Carnival Row is an original work in that it's not a remake, reboot or even adaptation from a comic book or novel. That's rare form in 2019, especially in a genre like fantasy.
The series is quite adept at world building, but it takes a long time to get going with its convoluted subplots. It only really hits its stride around episode four, and when there are only eight episodes in the first series, that's an indulgence it didn't have the right to ask.
There's a good chance that viewers will jump out after the first episode.
If you do stick around past the midway mark, there's some reward in it. Characters who start off as one note caricatures, such as Tamzin Merchant's spoilt rich girl Imogen Spurnrose, reveal themselves as more layered.
The overall look of the series is impressive, even if very cold and grim - money has obviously been spent here (except when the faes' wings are hanging limp down their backs, then it looks like a Halloween costume). So for fantasy fans, that alone could be enough inducement to plough through.
Bloom came to fame in some of the biggest genre franchises of the last two decades, including Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, and he's obviously very comfortable playing in the sandbox. And now he's that matured, there's a groundness to his performance that was lacking earlier on in his career.
However, he and Delevingne's chemistry is a bit flat, unconvincing as a pair destined lovers. They're much more interesting when they're exploring their own stories.
The series is populated with notable Brits in supporting roles, such as Simon McBurney (The Loudest Voice), Indira Varma (Luther, Game of Thrones) and Jared Harris (Mad Men, Chernobyl).
The comparisons to Game of Thrones are easy because it provides context for viewers looking for the next big fantasy show, even though there is much more magic realism compared to GoT's first season, but Carnival Row writer Marc Guggenheim bristles at the pairing, according to the LA Times.
In a way he's right. Carnival Row doesn't match GoT's first season - most of the time its complexity is more confusing than nuanced.
Not all of the subplots are as compelling as the others, and some of them only crossover briefly, leading you to wonder if they were necessary at all. Unless the pay-off is still to come.
It's already been renewed for a second season, so at least it has more time - because it does get better as it goes on - to convince us that Carnival Row should be uttered in the same sentence as that other fantasy epic. For now, it's a mixed bag.
Carnival Row starts streaming on Amazon Prime Video today
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