“Muttonchops,” intones Orlando Bloom introspectively, near the start of the first episode of Carnival Row. I spit out my tea. This is, as I had feared, not off to a good start.
Look, when I saw that Carnival Row, an alt-history fantasy starring Cara Develigne and Orlando Bloom, was coming out, I knew it was going to be bad news. Orlando Bloom is rarely to bearer of high quality – at least, it’s been more than ten years since that was the case – but that pre-libido nine-year-old version of me with a poster of the beautiful, comfortingly sexless Legolas on my wall demands that I pay attention to his career. I knew there was no good reason for me to watch this, but I am drawn, inexorably, to intoxicatingly bad TV like this; I reviewed two whole seasons of Riverdale, for the love of fuck.
But I’m here to tell you: don’t be like me. Yes, I know a lot of people of my generation are still nursing hangover-crushes from Pirates of the Carribean, but move on, my loves, move on. Fantasy isn’t my favourite genre at the best of times, and even with the commitment that Carnival Row addresses to its world and setting (I can’t argue with these gorgeous sets, costumes, or make-up efforts), there’s near-nothing to raise this out of the dirge of awful young adult fiction that it feels like it belongs to.
In fact, the show feels so much like a bad tonal knock-off of Divergent, which is in itself a bad tonal knock-off of The Hunger Games, that I’m consistently surprised every time it cuts to a bangin’ Bloom-ass-baring sex scene, every time someone says fuck; it feels, in so many ways, so stridently like it has sprung from the mind of someone who doesn’t actually know what teenage girls like trying to sell stories to teenage girls – the fact that it is trying to apparently court a remotely adult audience just feels…wrong.
Perhaps because if they had been trying to go out here and impress a more mature audience, they might have made the effort to lift the writing out of the actual gutter: the writing is grindingly poor, every episode feeling like the pilot as it hurries to cram world-building down your throat and give it’s huge, wasted cast (Jared Harris! Fly free, my enormously be-chinned sweet!) some semblance of screentime. The attempts at political relevance (oh, the refugee commentary! Oh, the vague racism condemnation! Oh, the insultingly simplistic takes on the nature of racism and the obviously Bad Guys who uphold it!) are so grindingly obvious and poorly articulated that they feel like little more than a stern ass-pat for the creators to give themselves.
The thin narrative of fairy-folk coming to a Victorian London for safe passage pulls on real-life images of the atrocities that certain refugees have been subject to (such as the washed-up ship full of the drowned escapees), and it’s so fucking badly written that it just feels like an exploitative, disrespectful mess. There are stories that can use fiction to explore real-life horrors in a profound and unsettling way, but Carnival Row is not one of those stories. It doesn’t have the deftness of touch, or the ability to make using fairies as a stand-in for refugees feel like anything other than a really misjudged misfire.
Let’s not forget, of course, the reason I watched this show in the first place: Orlando Bloom plays a gruff, would-be antihero (I think? It’s hard to tell what they’re going for when I’m so focused on the funny little way that his funny little hat is perched atop his funny little head) detective, One of The Good Ones and Certainly Not Racists who actually respects fairy people (and fucks ’em, too) and is trying to catch a serial killer picking them off. Now, look, I do like Orlando Bloom – in fact, I think he’s a great comic actor, and wish that his career had leaned more on that than it did on his distinctly amateur attempts at dramatics – but this growling, squinting, stalking leading man is just painfully awful.
I wish that the show had embraced a little more camp, as opposed to being the Deadly Serious Metaphor Hour, because I could totally see Bloom pulling off a performance with a little more of a nod and a wink. The less said about Cara Develigne, his erstwhile Irish fairy love, the better; this is about the best performance I’ve seen her put in, but considering that before that we had a lead role in the worst movie ever made to compare it to, I’m not sure that means much. Her character is so dry and utterly bland that she feels as though she’s about to crumble off the screen like so much stale bread.
Carnival Row is a show that oozes smugness, and that’s where it loses me. When Orlando Blooms nods seriously and announces “muttonchops”, I think I’m meant to take it seriously. I can forgive a lot if a show can have a little fun at its own expense, and maybe the low-quality writing and the bad acting and the overzealous plotting wouldn’t bother me so much if Carnival Row didn’t appear to want me to take it seriously. Alas, poor Bloom’s career, I knew him well – but now, I know better than to rely on him for a good show.
(header image via Radio Times)