Let me tell you a dark, mysterious, and magical tale. The story of how an original idea becomes a multi-million dollar TV series that eventually got dumped in the garbage.
The story of Carnival Row begins long before there were streaming wars fought over market share. In 2005, Travis Beachum, a recent college graduate, had his first spec script bought by New Line Cinema. The “dark neo-noir fantasy thriller” called A Killing on Carnival Row soon grabbed the attention of directors like Guillermo del Toro and Neil Jordan. After years of development hell, Amazon Studios bought the script in 2015 and decided to turn it into a big-budget fantasy series.
Amazon’s streaming catalog in 2015 was a strange place. Their first original drama series Bosch had just aired. The idea was spreading through Hollywood that this streaming thing Netflix pioneered might just be The Thing that propels TV production into the digital age. Netflix already had gritty, critically acclaimed Marvel shows, and House of Cards was getting nominated for Emmys every year. Netflix even blew $80 million dollars on the Wachowski sisters’ insane sci-fi fever dream Sense8. Amazon needed something big. Something original.
Carnival Row spent several years in development with Guillermo del Toro attached as a serious creative partner. He was going to produce, direct, and co-write the show alongside co-creator Rene Echeverria and Beachum. Del Toro and Beachum previously worked together on Pacific Rim, with Beachum being credited for the story and co-writing the screenplay. Thus, Carnival Row was set to be a huge original fantasy series, Amazon’s answer to Netflix’s big budgets and the new dark fantasy TV market that Game of Thrones opened up.
But by 2017 del Toro was no longer attached in any form. The show eventually premiered in 2019, starring Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom. It received a mixed/poor response from critics. The series was bloated, bland, and not worth the investment in an age of Peak TV when 1000 great shows are competing for your attention.
Carnival Row was always going to be a weird sell to audiences. Its neo-noir “steampunk with fae folk” gimmick is a niche interest even in the fantasy community. But for those who love that genre, there’s a lot to love in Carnival Row. It has extensive world building, lots of political intrigue, and pretty bland characters you can project anything you want onto. If you’ve ever wanted to see pixies fly around Victorian Streets or a satyr-esque creature read by candlelight in a three piece suit then you’re in luck.
But Carnival Row is also very silly. Names like Vignette Stonemoss and Rycroft Philostrate (Philo for short) sound like parodies of fantasy naming conventions. The show has several slurs for its magical creatures. The dialogue is poor, mostly consisting of characters saying exactly what they mean with little nuance or intrigue. Complicated ideas are introduced but underdeveloped. There is a wall that prevents the show from feeling lived in. Carnival Row was always an imitation, always trying to be the next big creative endeavor, but lacking in the required creativity.
There’s also the colonialism thing. Carnival Row is heavily inspired by British colonialism, where the fae folk are the oppressed and colonized class. But Carnival Row’s understanding of politics is extremely elementary, reminiscent of someone who vaguely remembers learning about the British Empire in high school and tries to develop on those fragments. Season 2 features an especially egregious development when the show adds a Communist uprising to the mix and handles that ideology with the care of a chainsaw in a tornado.
With all that being said, despite the many complaints I have for Carnival Row, I have a lot of respect for it. This may sound back-handed, but I don’t like it when every TV show is good. It’s exhausting. TV production is so big and involves so many cooks in the kitchen that a show that just doesn’t work to its core is rare, especially one that costs tens of millions of dollars.
Sometimes it’s fun to just try out an idea. For all its faults, you can’t say Carnival Row didn’t try. And some people really loved this weird creature. Carnival Row managed to make it to air. It exists. It’s a completely original IP that existed for 2 whole seasons. There were graphic novels, audio books, and roleplaying games based on an original idea written by a fresh college graduate in 2005.
But the story of Carnival Row’s existence also includes its messy end. The show was halfway through filming Season 2 when production got shut down by the pandemic in March 2020. It took a year for filming to resume. By the time Season 2 airs, Carnival Row will have spent 4 years off the air. In a depressing marker for the fickle world of streaming and the frequency of 1-2 season series, the show is currently the 4th oldest ongoing Prime Video TV series. It’s only been 4 years. Two seasons.
There is another key issue to consider: Carnival Row would not exist without tax incentives. The series is mostly filmed in the Czech Republic. While the exact budget is hard to pin-down, Czech publications estimate each season cost around $60-70 million to produce, with Amazon spending an insane $140 million to make the show in the Czech Republic in the first place. But Carnival Row also received $24.4 million in tax incentives. However, recent post-COVID legislation has made it much harder for big-budget productions to receive tax rebates in the Czech Republic, capping the amount at $6 million, less than half of what just one season of Carnival Row received.
A middling critical reception and no more hefty production discounts would have been enough for Amazon to pull the plug. But there’s also that $1 billion elephant in the room: their substantial investment toward developing the world of Tolkien into the next streaming franchise. Amazon has no need for an original fantasy series anymore; they have enough to buy Orlando Bloom’s biggest alma mater franchise. Production on The Rings of Power and beyond will be their top priority. Splashy big budget original ideas don’t hold the monopoly in the current streaming era like they did in the early days.
Season 2 is supposed to be the grand finale but it plays out like more of a dull end. The plot moves too quickly, yet somehow every episode feels like it takes forever. Scattered developments include the aforementioned communist uprising, a pixie virus subplot that has very bizarre allegorical implications, and a lack of substantial interactions between most of the main cast members. The writers knew this season would be the last, there is a concrete conclusion, and yet Carnival Row is still spinning its wheels up until the last few minutes. The creators built themselves a huge sandbox, but they don’t seem interested in playing with any of the toys they threw in.
The conclusion of this strange series is very bittersweet for me. On one hand I never thought the show succeeded in its goals. But I can’t deny I enjoyed watching it. I had fun dying laughing with my friends at just how ridiculous it got. And I’m sad that such an original show will get thrown away in favor of the ruling god that is IP.
When we talk about Peak TV we talk about the present. There’s too much to watch. It’s overwhelming. But the idea becomes more depressing if you think of the past. So much TV will be forgotten, will disappear into the internet or pulled off of a streaming service. Recent trends by services like HBO Max have been signs of the digital dark age archivists have tried to bring attention to for years. Carnival Row never left a strong enough cultural impact for people to perpetually uphold its existence. Just vague memories of the steampunk detective fairy show with 1000 different slurs will remain with a few people.
As I finished Season 2 of Carnival Row, I was overcome with the sense that this is a show that will be sacrificed to the Peak TV abyss. But this weird show existed, it tried and failed, and it managed to make it to the screen 20 years after the first spec script by a new college graduate sparked interest. It survived the biggest battles any creative production can go up against: development hell, streaming wars, a worldwide pandemic, and trying to be something new. Carnival Row never really took flight, but it’s pretty magical to see a show with wings.
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, FOX Digital, The Spool, and Awards Radar. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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