|Carnival Row Title Card, fair use, source: wikipedia|
I watched the entire 8 episode series through once and intend to rewatch it at some point but I've been asked a few times for my thoughts on it so I decided to write a short review here. I'll start with what I did like, then get into what I didn't, then what I found to be problematic. I am going to try to avoid spoilers here so this will be a bit short on plot details but it will include things specific to the series and world itself.
Let's begin with what I liked.
The series is visually stunning and it's very clear that its budget was put to good use. The aesthetic is neo-noir steampunk throughout and I loved the gritty realism that was achieved in a show featuring various fairy beings. It seemed to go easy with the CGI which I also thought was a wonderful choice as in my opinion CGI is overused and often can take away rather than add to the quality of a piece. Practical effects when done well are always going to be more believable. The sets are perfect for the tone of each scene and the attention to detail in the background and costuming is wonderful.
The acting is high quality for a serial piece, on par with the best of what's out there for anything else. The roles seem to be well cast and each player does a good job of embodying and conveying their particular character.
The show takes on various serious 'real world' issues, particularly racism, xenophobia, and the impacts of war on populations. While I may argue it does so in an excessively heavy handed manner I do respect the attempt and liked that it wasn't afraid to go there. I also liked the, admittedly limited, inclusion of some diversity in characters sexual preferences and relationships.
And finally I will say that, whatever criticism I'm about to give following this, I am happy to see more urban fantasy on television and reaching new audiences and I loved the idea of mashing up neo-noir, urban fantasy, and horror.
Now let's talk about what I didn't like.
I feel that there is a serious lack of world building in the entire series. While it is true a person can read the bonus trivia with each episode to learn more in the actual episodes and overall series there is very little to no effort to explain what I consider important details about the world of Carnival Row. I mean basic things like what is the Burgue? Is Tirnanoc an island, nation, continent, what? It took me quite a while to figure out that this wasn't alternate earth but supposed to be an entirely different earth-like place and that's not a good sign. Also some serious plot holes that just annoyed me. For example, what did that sailor see since it obviously wasn't the actual big bad of the series? How did the library end up in the Burgue if the Pact took over that area before it was found? Can fae just not hold a gun? Are they technophobes? Because it seemed very strange that they never used any human tech to fight even when it meant their own kingdoms falling. I also had a serious issue with the final few episodes and why the main target wasn't actually targeted and killed when he should have been; the last victim made no sense and that whole section just felt like bad writing.
Episode three was just oddly placed and disruptive, however necessary it was to fill in plot. I can understand why they chose not to begin with that episode then flash forward 7 years for the rest, but giving us two episodes 'present day' then a full episode 7 years in the past then back to everything present day just did not work for me personally.
The plot itself is predictable to anyone who has read a lot of urban fantasy or high fantasy, and I was disappointed by that. As someone who probably reads far too much of those genres this meant the show felt like awkward self-insert fanfiction rather than anything refreshing or new. I have also read a lot of fanfic so I can usually feel the difference pretty quickly. The only original thing I found was the idea of fae without any real magic and that just seemed like an easy out to explain why humans had taken them over so easily.
And for the problematic.
So. A key premise of Carnival Row is that fairies are real and live side by side with humans, in a place called 'the Burgue' in an alternate world that resembles ours during the Victorian era-ish. The fairies there are refugees from a different place which was overtaken by war, named in the series as 'Tirnanoc' and including places like Anoon and Mag More. The Fae folk themselves which we see in the show are primarily human-sized winged pixies, called pixies or fae, and Fauns, called 'Pucs', and Centaurs. Later in the show we will see kobolds depicted as squirrel sized animalistic beings, and trow which are kind of like the trolls in The Hobbit. A lot of this is purely invented, some is actual myth, and some is using names from actual folklore but for entirely new fictional creations. The series for some reason decided to blend equal parts pure fiction with names and places from existing Celtic (particularly Irish) mythology in a way that honestly makes the mythology parts look like fiction. There is also at least one place where the Irish language is used for the pixie characters language, when they refer to the human soldiers as 'faan-troigh' which I assume is Google translate minus the fada for 'wandering foot' [fán troigh]. For obvious reasons this genuinely angers me as it forwards the rewriting and warping of existing mythology, but also as writer Orla ní Dhuíll very rightly said in her recent piece 'Do Fantasy Writers Think Irish Is Discount Elvish' it is bad writing and lazy to simply shove some Irish or Irish myth in as a shorthand for fantasy.
I genuinely do not understand why the writer didn't just make it all up, rather than taking random bits from a few things to graft onto his fiction. It left a bad taste in my mouth. And for those who are shrugging this off as they read it please read Orla's article linked above and give this some serious thought. There are ways to incorporate myth and folklore into fiction and do it respectfully and well, or innovatively and well - I'd point you to Terry Pratchett, Tolkien, Peadar Ó Guilín, Ruth Frances Long, Ron C Neito, Kevan Manwaring among many others - but this is not that. This is furthering an appropriative approach that hurts the living material and culture and reshapes how mainstream culture understands these things. Irish folklore - and more widely material from other Celtic language cultures - are not just shortcuts to signal 'fantasy' to viewers or give something an exotic flavour.
I also was very uncomfortable with the fact that most of the human characters were white and most of the people of colour were fae; except of course the lead(s). The only significant main character* who was human and a person of colour was the main antagonist, which is also clearly reinforcing some unfortunate stereotypes. Another secondary human character who was black and fairly significant was infected with a supernatural illness that made him, basically, a type of fae. While I hope that was a further attempt at social commentary it unfortunately plays into some ongoing issues that both Hollywood and fiction have struggled with in how people of colour are portrayed or included in work. This show failed the DuVernay test even with Tourmaline in my opinion and it's worth noting that the only points black characters interact with each other (twice in the whole series that I saw) it's a child talking to their father, and a very awkward tea time scene without any real direct dialogue between the black actors. Social commentary is valuable but not at the expense of forwarding already problematic tropes like the 'magical negro'.
Ultimately I neither loved nor hated the show. I think it had its good points and it also had its bad but I am still unhappy with the issues I mention here as problematic. Yes I am overly critical where folklore and myth are concerned but I enjoy a good suspension of disbelief and fun show as much as anyone. I liked Sirens and I enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; I even love Charmed which is the height of campy ridiculous television. But this is different and in 2019 we should expect better even from our fun entertainment.
*I will note in fairness there is another human character introduced late in the series played by an actress who is a person of colour and whose character is ambiguous. Nonetheless the majority of human characters are played by non-poc actors relative to the actors playing fae characters. In such a visually striking show this is notable.