I admit to starting this series with low expectations. I have unreliable Amazon streaming access at the moment, and didn’t want to commit to something I really wanted to see. So I clicked on Carnival Row for one reason only: Orlando Bloom. I’m a simple woman.
The reason I had low expectations is because Carnival Row is one of the slew of SFF TV that has appeared post-Game of Thrones, and it feels kinda like a desperate grab for that audience. I was worried it would be unnecessarily “gritty”, and made by people without respect for science fiction and fantasy.
Well, I should’ve done some research before judging because it turns out Guillermo del Toro was originally attached to the project, and you can see his vision remains in the rich setting. The beautiful opening shots hooked me and kept me interested, even through graphic war scenes and a smash-cut to a full-frontal sex scene. (I’m not against violence or nudity in TV, again, I was just leery of a GoT knockoff.) (…I am against Game of Thrones.)
Turns out there was a lot to keep me watching! Here’s the rest of what you need to know if you’re considering Carnival Row:
Not offensive to women = 0/1 pt
Carnival Row tells the story of two countries in the human world who invade the fae world. Eventually, one human country gains the upper hand, and the other human country, the Burgue, allies with the fae. They eventually are forced to retreat, and many fae come to the Burgue as refugees. Despite being allies in the war, the complicated relationship between the nations and cultures persists, and refugee fae are second-class citizens in the Burgue. (The Burguish people are basically British, the fae sort of Irish-analogues).
The story opens with Orlando Bloom as a Burgish ex-soldier/current-police detective, investigating a murder on Carnival Row, the fae quarter of the city.
The story touches on a few topics that might be offensive (or maybe I should say, are often mishandled and therefore become offensive), specifically wartime rape and sex work. There are no rape scenes*, but rape is certainly in the background for the female characters. I thought this treatment was appropriate for a story about war and I was glad the showrunners didn’t show any unnecessary scenes to prove how dark their show was.
The sex work was handled decently. Main character Vignette’s friend Tourmaline works in a brothel on Carnival Row. She is treated with respect by all characters, gets a light romance plotline, and is well-developed. The main problem is the showrunners couldn’t seem to think of a way to respect Tourmaline while not having Vignette also turn to sex work. The explanation given is that Vignette “isn’t suited” to sex work, and admittedly her character is brooding and doesn’t seem like a fit for a customer-service-focused job of any type. But the script protested a bit too much for me. If nothing is wrong with sex work, than why isn’t the main character doing it? She instead joins a dangerous gang with a trigger-happy leader. But the show made an effort to respect sex work, and didn’t fumble it, so that’s not the reason this gets no points here.
*Orlando Bloom’s character comes to a witch doctor to see if a spell is possible. To prove it, he asks her to do the spell. She says yes…and that she needs his ejaculate to perform the spell. In a consensually-iffy situation, she puts him into a drugged out haze, and…it isn’t shown what happens, but she gets what she wants to perform the spell. Orlando is not super happy about it, but he seems to be ok with it as long as it’s for the spell. However, he doesn’t ever explicitly state this. It was a bit much for me, and I wished they would’ve included a line where he agrees more clearly, so I took off the point here.
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts
Tons of women characters, a lot of them super cool! My favorite line was “Chaos creates opportunity”. Just from that line you can tell this character is going to be fascinating! Actress Cara Delevingne did a good job as Vignette.
Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 3/3 pts
Yes, many times. Also passes for LGBT rep more than once. The racial representation is interesting. Fae characters could be any race, that is to say, any skin color, and were discriminated against for their fae-ness and not for their skin color. Human characters of all colors were part of the upper echelons of society, and in parliament, though the majority were white men. I’m sure the show overall had majority of white actors, and the leads were almost all white. However, there was a lot of diversity in the cast and I appreciated how they integrated diversity and discrimination throughout the show.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts
This show hooked me in the first episode, and by the third I was all-in and ready to binge. The settings were cool, especially the third episode, which is a flashback to the war shot in a gorgeous area of the Czech Republic in the winter. The acting was good, and the mystery was interesting.
The script was bad. So bad I often knew what character would say, word for word, before they said it. But that made the surprises all the more surprising when they did break the mold. I hope in the second season they get more comfortable and take more risks. The places where they did break the mold were the best characters/episodes/scenes.
At the time of this post, filming for season two has been halted as the original showrunner is exiting. This is oftentimes a bad sign for a show, but I wonder if it won’t help jazz up the next season. We’ll have to wait and see!
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Above and Beyond General Media = 5/5 pts
I was torn on this section but decided to give the show full points. I think the reason I waffled is because the show spread out a lot of good things across the eight episodes: racially diverse casting, casually-bi characters, a highly-relevant dive into colonialism, empire, and marginalized communities…Like some of the best SFF, the story was told through allegory that easily maps to our present situation. At times the show was predictable, yes, but never in a sexist or racist way.
Amazon certainly wants Carnival Row to capture the Game of Thrones audience, but it mostly didn’t feel like they were trying too hard. Instead, they committed. They committed to world-building, to strong characters, and to diverse representation. I respect the effort that went in.
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