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This Widely Panned Amazon Prime Show Is My New Obsession

Who knew that one show could combine all of my favorite things?

Tamzin Merchant and David Gyasi Carnvial Row

The world of streaming TV can feel a little overwhelming. I don’t even have cable and I am still awed by the sheer volume of shows and movies through the many streaming services. It isn’t surprising that we sometimes miss things or forget about certain series. Amazon’s Carnival Row was one of those lost items I had forgotten to check out.

Released in 2019, Carnival Row was widely panned by critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the first season received a score of 57%—not good. However, the audience score was an astounding 87%. What gives? The series found enough success with viewers to have a second season that comes out early next year. So with all of this in mind, I checked it out. And let me tell you, I fell in love so hard that Carnival Row has me planning a tattoo in its honor.

A whole new world

Carnival Row takes place in a fantasy world, mainly centered in a Londonesque city called The Burge. In clothing and technology, it seems on par with the Victorian area, so basically a cool Steampunk aesthetic (and yes, Steampunk still is cool). What makes this world different (better?) than ours is the existence of Fae beings. They’ve got faeries, fauns, centaurs, kobolds, and even a kind of werewolf called Marroks.

However, most of the humans in The Burge are not as enamored with their Fae counterparts and look down on them. Humans derogatorily call them “critch” (coming from the word “creature”) and force them to live in a separate area called Carnival Row. Social issues simmer under the surface of everything else going on in the show. The rampant racism toward the immigrant Fae population is painfully similar to what we see in the real world. It really drives home the point that racism stems from ignorance and hatred of anyone different from yourself.

If all of that isn’t enough to grab your attention, then maybe the murder mystery plot will. Someone is assaulting and murdering the Fae on Carnival Row. The only glimpse we get of the attacker makes it look like a Cthulhu’s smaller sibling. This show has everything.

And it’s got so much character!

Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne in 'Carnival Row'
Philo and Vignette watch in horror, while still looking beautiful. (Amazon)

Beyond the world-building and mythology of the series, there are the characters. To me, it feels like every character has an intricate backstory and an amazingly cool name. Cara Delevinge plays Vignette Stonemoss, a faerie fighter turned smuggler. I love everything about her. She thought her true love had died only to discover he was alive and working as a detective in The Burge. This detective is named Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate and is played by Orlando Bloom, who is just wonderful. As a once proud Legolas fangirl, I can attest that Bloom has only gotten better with age. And I have a lot of feelings about his story.

Some critics said that the romance between Vignette and Philo wasn’t epic enough (to which I say a curse on your house). But even if that were true, who cares? Not every lead romance needs to be fought with emotional ruin. Plus, there is a great romance that defies all odds with two other characters. Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) is from a wealthy family. Both she and her brother hold up gross racist traditions. She turned even worse when a Faun named Argeus Astrayon (David Gyasi) moved in next door. After trying to get rid of him, Imogen ended up getting to know him and falling for him. I mean, with those beautiful Faun horns, who could blame her?

And there are so many other characters to fall in love with. I know I’m not the only one who is low-key obsessed with Tourmaline Larou (Karla Crome), who works in a faerie brothel but was training to be a great poet in her homeland. Her relationship with Vignette is complicated and layered. I know other people must love her because Amazon created a special Audible series Carnival Row: Tangle in the Dark just to flesh out more of her history.

I get that this show might not be for everyone, but I am not sure why the critics panned it so much, compared to other fantasy series like Game of Thrones. Several reviews said the show felt too dreary or bleak (because Game of Thrones was so uplifting?), but I think they missed the personal joys shared between the characters. When the world is a mess, what else do we have but each other? I once heard the phrase that a good story should act as a window (into a new world) or a mirror (to reflect our own world in new ways), and Carnival Row did both. No matter what the critics say, I (and all the folks who gave the high audience score) am excited to see where season two takes us.

(featured image: Amazon Studios)

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D.R. Medlen is secretly a selkie that will one day return to the sea. In the meantime, she spends her days fangirling over anything from comic books to folklore podcasts, and everything in between. She lives that hobbitcore life while teaching her offspring the ways of the nerd.