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SYFY WIRE Carnival Row

Can Carnival Row fill a dragon-size void? Critics call fairy series 'Game of Thrones with a pixie cut’

By Brian Silliman
Philo and Vignette (Carnival Row)

The new steampunk fantasy treat from Amazon is almost here, so think happy thoughts. Carnival Row is looking to fill the fantasy void left in the world of streaming television by the departure of Game of Thrones, and it is doing that by leaning even more fully into fantasy tropes. This world of immigrant fantasy creatures features the fae, for example — fairies, wings and all, are fully on display. 

Set in an alternate Victorian London, the show depicts the fallout of a war between the "empires of man" and magical creatures. The war has ended, the magical creatures lost, and so the fae (and other creatures) now find themselves as immigrants and refugees in a world that doesn't want them. 

Central to the story (created by Travis Beacham and Rene Echevarria) is a pair of star-crossed lovers — the human Philo (Orlando Bloom) and a fae named Vignette (Cara Delevingne). They used to be a thing, are no longer a thing, and may be a thing again. In the midst of all this, Philo, an Inspector, attempts to solve a series of murders. 

Sounds good to us, but has it charmed the reviewers? The show has already gotten a second-season order, but still... are the critics clapping so hard at their screens because they believe in fairies, or do they want to send this entire enterprise beyond the wall? 

** WARNING: From this point forward, there will be spoilers for Carnival Row of the critical variety. If you want to go into the show knowing nothing at all, then fly, fly you fools! **

On the whole, critics are (mostly) clapping for the new series, albeit with an endless bag-of-holding worth of caveats. Almost every review compares the new series to Thrones. It may not be another series of that ilk, but they seem to think it's right in line with Penny Dreadful

In Entertainment Weekly, Kristen Baldwin writes that the show "is a knotty, nerdy, and endearingly sincere parable about immigration and xenophobia, with plenty of interspecies sex to satisfy viewers." She does note that there is some "pastiche and sometimes-banal writing" going on, but that there are also "playful touches and charming stories." In the end, she writes that, "the mythology can feel needlessly complex, but there is something truly endearing about Carnival’s earnest, irony-free storytelling." 

For Forbes, Merrill Barr is sold, writing, "What makes Carnival Row work is its commitment to launching into this kind of world with fleshed-out ideas. Since the series is choosing to take the path of claiming the world is as it is and not going the route of having the creatures be revealed as having lived in secret for generations, more care needed to be taken into crafting a world that feels lived in. And that care is clear and present from the first frame."

Forbes makes it clear that this is not Game of Thrones come again, and that it's for the best: "Overall, Carnival Row is the kind of show we need right now. The kind of show that lives the ideals of Game of Thrones without straight trying to simply do it all over again. It’s fantasy, but of a different breed... on those merits, there’s no reason to not be excited for more." 

Richard Trenholm of CNET continues with the Game of Thrones comparisons, calling the show "Game of Thrones with a pixie cut." He goes on to write, "Basically it's Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes falling in love with Tinker Bell, against a backdrop of Thrones-esque dynastic nastiness." He notes that despite the presence of fairies and satyrs, there's a lot of sex and naughty language. There's also some very dense worldbuilding, but, he notes, "If you stick around for episode 3, things come together with a flashback to the deadly war which provides the backstory to this world."

He ends with writing, "With Carnival Row, Amazon may not have found its Game of Thrones — but it could be the new Penny Dreadful.

Vinnie Mancuso of Collider was less impressed with the fae and the travails, again noting that this show is coming in the post-Thrones world and broadly lets the audience know that it is for adults. He calls it, "A Tolkien that f***s, basically." 

"It’s not that the narrative web is hard to follow, it’s just that some strands are just far more interesting than others," he writes. "For a story that hops from character to character to character to work, there can’t be any weak links in the chain." He mentions several performances that he thinks illustrate this, remarking that they are played at such "a broad level of hoity-toity" that things almost devolve into parody. Still, he thinks that series is not "a bust" and praises most of the cast, the design, and the costumes. 

For Hypable, Michal Schick takes a similar tone, beginning by writing, "It’s fantasy that f***s." One of his issues is the show's insistence on letting you know this. "Beneath its gruff exterior of sex and gore (prepare to see many entrails if you press play) the show’s intentions are almost painfully earnest. Carnival Row tries so hard to reflect modern divisions and turmoil through a dark mirror of the imaginary that all we end up seeing is a smudged and unmoving caricature." 

He criticizes the series for being "unfocused" and trying to take on one real-world issue too many. He writes, "That’s not to say that the series is without its entertainment. But to pull a phrase from my D&D manual, absent magical spark and loaded with earnest intent, it proves decidedly lacking in evocation." Even so, he offers, "Carnival Row is genuinely enjoyable for the gusto with which it embraces fantasy." 

Carnival Row flies like a fairy and jumps like a satyr beginning on Aug. 30 on Amazon Prime.