It's rare to find a completely original genre show these days, with most of what we see onscreen being either a reboot, a remake, or something based on an existing novel or comic book series. Amazon's Victorian noir steampunk series Carnival Row, however, bucks this trend; the show's fantastical world, full of faeries and pucks as well as murder and political intrigue, was created whole cloth by Travis Beacham (who wrote a screenplay 17 years ago on which the show is based) and the other writers staffed on the first two seasons.
Creating a fully realized universe without a publicly known IP to rely on brings extra challenges to a writer's room. For example: What needed to be fleshed out first, the world or the characters? And how deep did the writers go when creating the history, the politics, and the religions of the people who live there? SYFY WIRE had the opportunity to interview Stephanie K. Smith, a writer on both Season 1 and Season 2 of the show, to get her perspective on the process of bringing to life Beacham's expansive world and the characters who live there.
**SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers to the first season of Carnival Row below.**
Part of what makes Carnival Row so compelling is the deep worldbuilding that Beacham did to bring the show to life. "The world is everything on this show," Smith says when talking about the writing process for the series. "And I think that's what you'll get a sense of when you watch it. It was important to set that stage right away... the scope of the show is more than just the Burgue," she adds, referring to the Victorian London-esque city where Philo (Orlando Bloom) and Vignette (Cara Delevingne) live.
Finding the balance between showing the gritty details of life on the streets of the Burgue while still paying homage to the world's immense scale was something the show worked to get right. They even reshot the first two episodes in order to establish the enormity of the refugee situation upfront, as the ramifications of that crisis impact the lives of the characters (albeit to varying degrees) throughout the season. The opening scene of the series, in which Vignette attempts to save a group of faerie refugees from being slaughtered by the Burgue's enemy, the Pact, was part of those reshoots, and was added in part to establish the enormity of the world as well as Vignette's lived experience before finding herself a refugee in the Burgue.
The breadth of the worldbuilding Beacham did, however, goes beyond what we saw in Season 1; there are other lands besides the Burgue and Tirnanoc (the land where Philo and Vignette meet in Episode 3's flashback) that he and the writers have fleshed out, and chances are we'll see more places in Season 2. And even if we don't see all the backstory that Beacham and the writing team has put together, all of that detail doesn't go to waste; the richness behind what we see onscreen provides a level of immersion that the show would otherwise lack, and having a fully realized world also provides the writers insight into how the main characters would react or respond to different situations.
While the worldbuilding is the backbone of the show, what truly draws the audience into the first season are the characters. And while many of the characters were initially sketched out by Beacham, it was in the writer's room where their backstories and motivations were fully realized.
"The characters stem from the world, but everything after that stems from the characters," Smith explains. When breaking out the season, the complexity of the characters and how they would react to certain situations was of utmost importance — where would Vignette, for example, who has seen hell and lost everything, be like now that she's landed in the Row? The writer's room kept these types of questions top of mind when working out the storylines, arcs, and plot points for the season.
Another thing that was emphasized in the room was the commonalities the characters have, even though they have very different backgrounds and experiences. "If you think about it, no one in our primary cast feels at home where they are," Smith says. "It's obvious for the refugees, but even Breakspear's position is threatened by Longerbane's ascent, and clearly Piety feels concerned enough to do what she does. And of course this feeling — a combined restlessness and inability to relax — applies most of all to Philo."
Other characters struggle to change their position in life, as well: Sophie no longer wants to be locked up at home; Jonah wants to prove he has the grit to be Chancellor; Agreus wants to be accepted into human high society; Imogen wants to escape the confines of aristocratic life. By the end of the first season, some of the characters do manage to escape their confines. How things will play out for them in Season 2, however, remains to be seen.
AND, YES, SEASON 2
Season 1 holds a lot of promise, something that Amazon recognized by signing off on Season 2 before the first season was even released. And fans of the show will be able to learn more about world of Carnival Row (and particularly about Vignette and Tourmaline) on October 4 when Amazon releases the Audible book Carnival Row: Tangle in the Dark, a story written by Smith and narrated by actor Carla Krome (Tourmaline) about Vignette and Tourmaline's history together.
And even though we'll get this glimpse into Vignette and Tourmaline's old life together, one of the big questions leading into Season 2 is what will happen with Philo and Vignette.
"Remember, when Vignette comes to the Burgue she's looking for Tourmaline, not Philo," Smith says. "Him being alive is a shock. They've never existed as a couple in anything other than a heightened reality... so I think it'll be interesting to see how they work once they find a new normal — if they're given that chance," she teases. "In Carnival Row, you never know."