There's something great hiding in the shadows of Carnival Row Season 1. It is, in part, the very monster that the show's trailers promised. It's also, as one of the show's characters describes that very monster, the "strange power in the joining of unlike things." The show is at its best when those great things are out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Amazon's new steampunk fantasy series is a beautiful show — I imagine there are some people out there watching the series for the set design and costumery alone — filled with magical characters in a wholly original world; series creator Travis Beacham has achieved greatness simply because he made a show not based on any existing IP. Sure, if you squint hard enough, Carnival Row takes from other fantasy; comparisons to other stories are the bread and butter of genre fans, and anything combining humans with magical creatures will inevitably spark long-winded comments online about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Unlike Lewis and Tolkien's works, though, as dark as they can get, Carnival Row is darker — and ends with a ridiculously high WTF Moments count. And I argue that the show is at its best when it doesn't forget just how pitch-black and weird it's capable of leaning.
**SPOILER WARNING: This story contains spoilers for Carnival Row Season 1.**
That's not to say dark-and-gritty is always the correct choice. In fact, I'd argue it rarely is despite what every 2010s-era DC movie and modern '80s remake might have you believe. Carnival Row, though, is at its best when it leans into the ridiculous, the gory, and the otherworldly.
Season 1's eight episodes, unfortunately, drag the most when the two main characters, Orlando Bloom's half-Fae detective Rycroft Philostrate and Cara Delevingne's literal manic pixie dreamgirl Vignette Stonemoss, clash and subsequently pine from a distance; it similarly struggles when the series' ultra-wealthy human elite spend extended periods of time tittering over their new Fae neighbor or when politicians debate in-world politics for the sake of telling the audience just how much of an allegory for racism all this is.
But when Bloom's Philo severs a monster's head from its body only to have that monster reattach its own head minutes later with a sickening squelch? When Vignette destroys the monster by shoving a knife so deep through its master's head that it comes out her mouth, dripping blood? When sibling duo Ezra and Imogen Spurnrose supposedly stare at each other across miles of water while a solemn tune plays in the background and Imogen sets out for a new world with her Fae lover? When a mystical woman drinks a glowing-blue concoction that allows her to cheat death just long enough to reveal the killer's identity? When a woman named Piety smothers her husband to death?
It's good. It's so good.
The show's best moments come in Season 1's final episode, which makes for a dangerous kind of pacing. If you've got an entire day to dedicate eight hours to watching the series all the way through, you might make it. If you don't, then best of luck. These moments, some ultra-dark and others so on the nose that they verge on jumping the shark, act as rewards, gifts for viewers who have managed to make it to that point. Because getting to that point requires patience; in a world rendered so like our own, you need these disturbing, off-kilter scenes as a light at the end of the tunnel; otherwise, Carnival Row becomes far too like the real world, especially if you went in expecting a fantasy series.
As the mystical Afissa says in Episode 4, there's a "strange power in the joining of unlike things." While she might have been talking about the Darkasher — the Frankenstein's monster-esque creature controlled by Piety Breakspear and fueled by her jealousy — this line also describes how well the ridiculous works in this show. There is, indeed, a strange power in going full-tilt, mixing the horrible with the hilarious and unexpected. Don't hold back.
Oddly enough, these qualities are probably best embodied by Caroline Ford's Sophie Longerbane, who dreams of chaos and dynasties and sees no problems in copulating with her half-brother; she schemes, she lies, she's a "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" villain with great potential — I simply fear all this might be downplayed. Again.
Given that the first season ends on so many spectacularly weird notes, I can only hope for more oddities, more power-hungry characters taking what's theirs with a sneer, and more Orlando Bloom hacking a monster's head off with an ax in Season 2.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.