Carnival Row is a rare beast: a completely original, not-based-on-a-book fantasy series for television. Not only is it fantasy, but it's also a gunpowder/steampunk fantasy, drenched with Victoriana, gas lighting and trains. The show is the brainchild of Pacific Rim writer Travis Beacham and Star Trek producer-writer Rene Echevarria and feels like it's been influenced by the likes of Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and the Dishonored series of video games (some similarities with the subsequent Netflix series Arcane may also be discerned).
The show pursues several different storylines across its eight-episode run. Its main focus is on Philo (Lord of the Rings' Orlando Bloom), a gruff and growly cop with a striking bowler hat who is trying to do what is right but is stymied by uncaring bosses, racist colleagues and indifferent friends. Philo is also a war veteran and harbours secrets from his childhood he is not keen on becoming well-known. His story contrasts with that of his former lover Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a fae who has been working as an agent for the underground railroad, helping the persecuted flee her occupied homeland across the ocean. Vignette reluctantly relocates to the Burgue when Anoun becomes too hot for her, but is enraged to discover that Philo has survived, when she believed he'd died. Their relationship forms one spine of the show but fortunately does not overwhelm it.
Another major plot follows that of indebted youngsters Imogen and Ezra Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant and Andrew Gower), who have inherited their father's fortune and house but not his prudence with finances. They end up living beyond their means and Ezra becomes indebted to loan sharks. However, Imogen spies an unconventional way out through a business alliance with new neighbour Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi), a wealthy faun who is treated with disdain by their social set even as they lust after his immense fortune. This storyline looks at competing ideas of wealth, status and perceived power and how they intersect with prejudice.
A further thread follows the political life of the city, with Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) pursuing a policy of appeasement and freedom with his chief rival, Ritter Longerbane (Ronan Vibert) being keener to enflame the racial tensions in the city and appeal to the prejudiced. This thread also draws in Absalom's wife, Piety (Indira Varma), and his son Jonah (Arty Froushan).
There's a lot going on in Carnival Row, which is a relief as we've too often seen shows which are eight or ten or twelve hours long with far less plot to support them. Carnival Row is something of a blunt instrument - the "racism is not good" message is fairly clear - but it tells its story and explores its themes of power and prejudice through a variety of storylines and characters, with enough going on to keep busy but not so much it overwhelms the viewer.
The show lives through its worldbuilding, which is impressive. The Burgue is created through a mixture of mostly-seamless CGI and location filming in Liberec and Prague, along with excellent set work. The city is not wholly original - think of a smaller New Crobuzon or a more fantastical Dunwall - but the execution of bringing it to life is excellent. The show is also not afraid to throw country names, factions and races into the mix to create a world that feels lived-in and complete (maps of the city and the world can be found online, but are not necessary), rather than thin and not existing beyond the confines of the screen.
The worldbuilding is exemplary and the storytelling is solid, although unoriginal. The show unironically borrows several plot twists straight out of the Star Wars playbook without much alteration, and its themes of power and racial tension are handled well, but not in any kind of revelatory way. The show is elevated by its performances, with Tamzin Merchant (who narrowly avoided being Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, and here showing she could have done a great job) having the toughest character arc as she evolves from prejudiced airhead to canny businesswoman, which she handles well. Erstwhile stars Orlando Bloom and Carla Delevingne deliver very solid, reliable performances, even if Bloom does feel he's channelling a mixture of Discworld's Sam Vimes crossed over through Tom Hardy's unhinged psycho-protagonist from Taboo (complete with epic hat and questionable growly voice), a curious choice which often works and sometimes does not. I did enjoy Delevingne's Irish-infused angry fairy spiel, even if her main story arc (working for fae rebels on the street) kind of spluttered out halfway through the season and she became more of a supporting player in her own story.
David Gyasi (Cloud Atlas, Interstellar, Containment) delivers arguably the best performance of the season as Agreus, a "puck" who has chosen to live more like a human, earning their money and forcing them to respect him in spite of themselves. The magisterial Jared Harris (Chernobyl, The Expanse, The Terror, Foundation) is of course utterly outstanding as always, as is Indira Varma (Rome, Game of Thrones) as his wife. The show also has its share of scene-stealing supporting characters, like Simon McBurney as Runyon, the master of a street theatre troupe of kobols; Karla Crome as Tourmaline, Vignette's long-suffering friend; and Alice Krige, the Borg Queen herself, as a prophetic witch. The show also makes a curious choice in violating the "Chekov's Werewolf" maxim, by putting a werewolf into play but then not using him in the finale.
Carnival Row's first season (****) marries exemplary performances, superb production values and an amazing sense of fantasy worldbuilding with a somewhat predictable plot. But if this is not the most surprising show in the world, it readily delivers solid storytelling and keeps up a great sense of pace. The show's best episode is its third, a near-contained flashback story to the war between the Pact and the Burgue, which hints at a future where the show breaks free of the constraints of the Burgue to tell a more global, epic story.
The first season is available now on Amazon Prime Television. A second season has been filmed and is due for release later this year.