In the fantasy world of Carnival Row, tensions between humans and magical creatures are high. The Republic of Burgue has become somewhat of a refuge to fae folk who have been driven from their homelands by the predatory Pact, and those without wings, horns or hooves are far from welcoming. Unless they’re looking for a pixie pal in one of the city’s grubby bordellos, that is.
Despite its steampunk, 19th Century setting, the show’s themes couldn’t be timelier, but Carnival Row explores more than xenophobia, classism and immigration. In fact, it tries to squeeze an overwhelming number of storylines into its eight-episode run, resulting in a bloated – albeit beautiful-looking – mess.
At its tangled core is Orlando Bloom’s Rycroft ‘Philo’ Philostrate, a detective assigned to catch a killer who’s been wreaking bloody havoc in the big smoke. However, he loses focus when he bumps into his faerie ex Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), and is forced to confront the not-so-metaphorical scars of his past. The show tries to give them an epic, Romeo and Juliet-type love story, as it flashes back to when they fell hard and fast as soldiers before they were torn apart and Vignette was told that Philo had been killed. But Bloom and Delevingne lack the chemistry to sell it.
Separately, Delevingne proves the stronger performer of the two; successfully shrugging off her Suicide Squad criticism and imbuing Vignette with guts, charm and a genuinely rather impressive Irish accent.
As fair as pairings go, others are more dynamic. Like the slow-burn, tentative romance between warm, wealthy faun Agreus (David Gyasi) and prickly heiress Imogen (Tamzin Merchant) or the power struggle between Chancellor Absalom (Jared Harris) and his wife Piety (Indira Varma). Unlike far superior ensemble shows such as Penny Dreadful or American Gods though, the characters are so disconnected that the narrative feels clunky and surface-level.
Its most interesting aspect is its murder mystery – which is largely neglected – the world-building is decent, and its aesthetic is a delightful combination of gloom and glittering glamour. But for a show that centres so heavily on desire, it’s frustratingly unsatisfying.