The race to replace “Game of Thrones” has its latest entrant, with Amazon’s new “Carnival Row,” a series that combines fantasy, melodrama, ultraviolence, and strained political allegory. But, for now, the “Thrones” legacy seems safe: This new series reaches for credibility with gruesomeness and exaggeration, falling flat at every turn. It’s painful proof that a genre success cannot be reverse-engineered.
That engineering does seem solid: “Carnival Row,” renewed for a second season before its first has aired, was built to last in our current Comic-Con-fueled universe. Its marquee stars are Orlando Bloom (of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” cinematic universes) and Cara Delevingne (of the DC Comics one, as a star of “Suicide Squad”), and it tells a story whose nastiness would appear, in theory, to be ameliorated by the dreamy magic at its margins.
The show takes place in a sort of fantastical Victorian era in which guns and bombs are real, but so are fairies; the former are the sanctioned tools of those keeping the peace, the latter perceived as threats to the human order. It’s a premise as fine as any, but one that ends up, in practice, having far less to say about the potential for fairylike transcendental flight than about the grotesqueness of us humans down in the muck. That’s a story that’s been told before, far more ably, and far less reliant on simple shock to make its point. I’d posit that the image of a violently disemboweled person — the sight of whose splayed-out intestines cause a policeman character to vomit onscreen — should be earned, somewhat, by a show we trust to treat the story with care. This happens at the top of the second episode, and, having been dosed with much mythology but little in the way of meaningful character, we’re not there yet. Later comes the threat of sexual violence, dispatched less to develop character (as was the “Thrones”-era line) than simply, lazily, because it seems expected of the genre, now.
Delevingne does her best as a would-be liberator, a winged fairy, who, through a stroke of misfortune, finds herself trapped in the world of humans. The series’s attempts to situate her as a migrant in an unfeeling world more like ours than we’d like to admit fall perhaps short of resonance, but hers is the most compelling storyline, if only because the show feels lost without her flashing charisma onscreen. Bloom, pitching his voice low as a human detective, does little at all while trying to solve various uncompelling mysteries. However much narrative energy spent ginning up an alternate universe in which divine creatures exist seems wasted as Bloom plods through cases that are either uninspired or inspired by every Jack the Ripper copycat in history.
“Carnival Row.” Amazon. August 30. Eight episodes (four screened for review).
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, Simon McBurney, David Gyasi, Tamzin Merchant, Andrew Gower, Karla Crome, Arty Froushan, Caroline Ford, Indira Carma, Jared Harris.
Executive Producers: Marc Guggenheim, René Echevarria, Jon Amiel, Travis Beacham.