The first season of Carnival Row will draw comparisons to being somewhere between Bright (don’t worry, its better than that) due to the fantasy elements and Game of Thrones due to the politics (and sibling “relations”). As a comic book reader however, my mind immediately went to the first volume of Bill Willingham’s Fables. The first 5 issues of Fables focuses on Bigsby (the Big Bad Wolf) solving a murder mystery in the town of Fabletown (home to some of the mystical characters from some of your favorite childhood fables and tales). While there’s nothing wrong with those first 5 issues, as a reader, you can’t help but feel more intrigued by the larger world and side characters than the main story. And that’s how I felt with the first season of Carnival Row. There’s an interesting story to tell with interesting characters in the first season of Carnival Row. The problem is it doesn’t really involve the two leads. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Orlando Bloom (playing Rycroft Philostrate) or Cara Delevingne (Playing Vignette Stonemoss). On their own, both of their characters have intriguing paths (Philo having the stronger story of the two). The problem comes from the desire to rekindle the relationship between these two character which holds both of them back. Vignette suffers the most from this as her character progression always ends up tying back to Philo, which is the least interesting thing about her. When she finally strikes out on her own and joins the Black Ravens (A group of hard-nosed Faeries that take a ‘whatever it takes to survive’ stance), even that eventually leads back to Philo and the Black Ravens become an afterthought for the rest of the season.
That’s not to say Carnival Row isn’t worth checking out. Despite some early pacing issues and a pretty predictable story around the two leads, where Carnival Row shines is in the supporting characters and larger world. The political storyline with Jared Harris’ Absalom Breakspear and his family as well as their rivals the Longerbane’s (particularly Caroline Ford’s Sophie) is very riveting and sets the stage for future seasons. But the real show stealers are David Gyasi (Agreus) and Tamzin Merchant (Imogen). The interactions and relationship between their two characters is one that will have audiences fully engaged and wondering what happens to them in subsequent seasons.
There’s enough potential to warrant checking out season one of Carnival Row. Knowing that the show is already getting a season two helps with understanding some of the early pacing issues which seemed to be playing the long game with world building. To go back to Fables, after those first 5 issues, Willingham then took readers on a wild ride that spanned 150 issues and several spinoffs that created a fully enriched and intriguing world that was completely satisfying. Here’s hoping that starting with season 2, Carnival Row can live up to the potential it has.
If you're a premium member, listen to Kriss, Ro and Brandon discuss the first season (with spoilers) below.
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