Wednesday, August 28, 2019

TV REVIEW: Amazon's 'Carnival Row'

Amazon will debut its new original drama series Carnival Row on Friday, August 30. The drama stars Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, Simon McBurney, Tamzin Merchant, David Gyasi, Andrew Gower, Karla Crome, Arty Froushan, Caroline Ford, Indira Varma and Jared Harris.

Read on for my thoughts on the new fantasy drama after screening its entire first season.

Every network wants to be the home of the next Game of Thrones. What does that actually mean though? Does it have to be a sprawling fantasy epic with numerous storylines and points of view? Or does it have to be a show that audiences collectively watch together? The HBO drama managed to check off both of those boxes. It pulled off the rare feat of being critically beloved, commercially successful and showered with awards attention. It may be lightning in a bottle that everyone continues to chase - just like Friends and Lost which have seen many copycats in the years since they went off the air. It's hard to pull off. And now, so many networks are trying it regardless simply because of the rewards that could potentially come. At Amazon, they may be trying to hedge their bets a little bit. They are essentially telling a perspective audience that they should feel comfortable getting sucked into a new fantasy world because Carnival Row has already been renewed for a second season. It was the same strategy they deployed a month ago when the streamer ordered a second season of superhero drama The Boys before its official launch. That show arguably had a solid debut for the service as well. Will Carnival Row follow the same trajectory? It's probably reductive to say that this new drama is a wannabe Game of Thrones. That doesn't need to be the comparison from which everything else is judged. That show had plenty of problems as well. Fantasy storytelling can be tough especially in the beginning. The right hand steering the ship is necessary to make it all seem worth it in the end. Carnival Row was originally developed as a feature film script by Travis Beacham. It soon transitioned into a television series with veteran producers René Echevarria and Marc Guggenheim coming in to hopefully lead it to greatness. And yet, the final product leaves a lot to be desired. That is incredibly disappointing especially since there are many potent and vital themes being explored in the main story.

The main source of story takes place in the Burgue, a civilization that presents as a mixture of various different species. This is a world where mankind co-exists alongside fairies (known as fae or pix) as well as numerous other horned creatures. It aspires to be a parable of the immigrant experience. For years, the fae homeland has been in turmoil due to a war started by the impulses of man. The Burgue fought against a brutal country known as the Pact for control of this island. The Burgue were willing to work with the fae and offer some humanitarian relief and compassion. Meanwhile, the Pact soldiers just wanted to conquer above all else. It's a very tragic and sinister world. But it's also a little removed from where the show actually starts. The premiere opens seven years after the Burgue has pulled its soldiers out of the conflict leaving the fae essentially defenseless against these oppressive occupants. As such, numerous immigrants flee to other parts of the world hoping to start over and find that peaceful existence once more. They leave their homes because it's dangerous for them to stay. And yet, they arrive in a country that is no longer friendly to them. The Burgue is now a country fiercely divided along political lines where the party in control isn't actually doing anything to calm tensions while the opposition party riles up hatred against these newcomers to their world. Again, it's a very relevant and timely story. One that plays into so many conflicts society is still struggling to cope with. But again, these ideas don't entirely mesh well with the actual story of the piece. In the middle of all of this is a love story between human inspector Rycroft "Philo" Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) and fae refugee Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne). They have an intense history with one another. There are numerous reasons why they are pulled together and pushed apart. But at the end of the day, it mostly plays as a romance that ebbs and flows based on the demands of the plot. In fact, Philo is often positioned as the lead of the show with Vignette being sidelined despite being just as interesting and engaging. Everyone in this world carries secrets. Some just happen to be more important than others.

The actual plotting of the season is a slog though. It absolutely has momentary beats of relief and excitement. The third episode, in particular, is an hourlong flashback to the war that set the fates for the current predicaments of the main characters. The season finale also does a solid job in bringing all of the disparate narrative threads together in a way that makes sense. However, the world-building is simply too overwhelming and inessential for most of the run. There are aspects of this universe that are completely tangential but are suppose to be treated just as seriously as everything going on with Philo and Vignette. The show doesn't entirely know what to do with a handful of them either. One story is set in the high society of this world - featuring Tamzin Merchant, Andrew Gower and David Gyasi - where the elites are rattled by a new neighbor who doesn't share their same cultural identity. It just offers nothing engaging to the overall conversation about the immigrant experience. Instead, it's a pretty standard affair of how one's prejudices are slowly eroded as soon as a person gets to know the one they hated so fiercely for some reason. Elsewhere, Jared Harris and Indira Varma offer some serious credibility to the proceedings by playing a political power couple who actually rule over their society. But it too is very detached from the events happening on the ground. Once it does become apparent that their actions affect people, it feels like the show wasted a lot of time and didn't quite know what to do with two very strong actors. Harris has always been able to elevate any project he is in. He plays the Chancellor of this world but he really doesn't exert much influence if any throughout these eight episodes. That's incredibly disappointing. That corner of story at least has some merit though. The same cannot be said for a blunt introduction into religious fanaticism where one character joins the cause seemingly because he has nothing better to do. That's the kind of motivation and actions frequently seen in this world. The show doesn't always aspire to explain why anyone does what they do. The audience just has to go along with it. If the viewer can fully embrace that quality, then this can be a rewarding world full of interesting mythology. If the viewer can't, then this probably isn't a show that can get much better than what it presents to be at the moment. It has interesting ideas. It just doesn't quite know how to execute them all in a cohesive and engaging way.