Disclaimer: This is a review, and as such will contain opinions, spoilers and (often) general shit talking. (If you talk about what you don’t like about a work, you learn a lot. When you think through a work with the stakes presented to you by the creator, by the context of the work, you learn a lot. I review things, not because I love to dislike things, but because dislike contains rich and vital information for the process of experiencing something, but I cannot access it without interrogating it.) So, if you don’t want to have this thing spoiled for you, or don’t know how to behave when a person on the internet, that you don’t know, has opinions that don’t line up with yours, this review is not for you. It’s also not for the author/creator of the work. Please and thank you.

I’ve been taking the past few weeks off from working, because I was starting to creep into burnout territory. Again.

To completely detach from work, I decided to finish a creative project: knitting a pair of socks.

I’ve never done that before, and knitting has always intimidated me because it’s a lot of maths, but this time I’m getting on quite well.

So, while I work, Carnival Row has been keeping me entertained.

It’s a Sherlock Holmes-like murder mystery fantasy set in a Victorian-style world. It’s also a social allegory that comments on real world racism and politics.

At its centre it has a star-crossed lovers narrative, though it sports several other couples (as well as is a kind of soft-core monster fantasy porn).

It combines a lot of different mythological and historical elements into one; from various mythological creatures to the fae in The Burgue being corralled into the Row at the end of season one, evoking images of Jews in Nazi occupied Germany.

Immediately, about 15 minutes into episode one, I found myself googling if it was based on a book. Because it’s this kind of material we’ve seen being adapted in a truncated form that is rendered meaningless by not staying faithful to the right elements of the source material (The Witcher, LOTR: Rings of Power, and Game of Thrones, to name a few).

It’s not.

It’s an undeveloped screenplay, originally titled: “A Killing on Carnival Row”, and it was a detective story investigating a Jack-the-Ripper-like serial killer targeting fairy sex workers.

The series apparently had behind-the-scenes issues, even going so far as to replace the original showrunner at one point. According to main character actor Orlando Bloom, when Covid hit, the show decided they had enough material to conclude the story in 2 seasons rather than the originally planned 4.

And you can feel it.

The two seasons they did produce are so jam-packed with themes and plot twists that Carnival Row packs a punch that leaves you feeling unsatisfied at the end.

The start was slow and quite boring, the story not really picking up until we get to the backstory of how Philo and Vignette met. I wish they would have started the story there instead.

The unlikeable vibe I had from Vignette from the start begins to make sense in late season two, but even there to truly explore that topic of friendship, trust and sacrifice, the show would have needed more time.

At almost every turn you feel like the show wanted to explore something more, but had to sacrifice several things in order to do the plot-lines they ended up including — and even then many feel rushed and incomplete, not completely thought through.

As it stands, the end of Carnival Row feels rushed and abrupt, being neither good nor satisfying.

In absence of a book series to dig into to satisfy a hunger and the many questions the show leaves you hanging with, there is a graphic novel that delves into the backstories of some of the main characters called Tales of Carnival Row.

While Orlando Bloom gives a steady, and even surprisingly nuanced performance which I haven’t seen from him before, the absolute shining stars for me were Karla Crome as Tourmaline, Caroline Ford as Sophie Longerbane (who has a stellar exit from the show) and Tamzin Merchant as Imogen Spurnrose.

I was excited when I saw they had Indira Varma as Piety Breakspear and that she played a villain out of the gate, but Piety’s arc sort of fizzled out soon after the initial set up and was never really explored fully. Which was such a shame, because Varma gave a wonderful performance.

The show also has some of my favourite fantasy/scifi heavy hitters like Jared Harris and Alice Kriege (plus a great but less haunting performance from Ian Hanmore than in Game of Thrones).

The season 1 trailer is awful and has the complete opposite vibe of the show, but here it is… I guess…

The season 2 trailer does a much better job of capturing the darker, politically volatile mood that permeates all of the plot-lines.