Just Standard Doom, Gloom and Inner Torment – Carnival Row Season 2 Premiere (2023)

Absent nearly four years since the first season debuted, the return of Amazon Prime’s Carnival Row feels more like the fulfillment of a contractual obligation than a property the streamer is committed to supporting. The second season is already confirmed to be the last. As so many other outlets have tripped over themselves canceling in-development projects at the last minute, I’m frankly surprised that Amazon didn’t take a tax write-off on this one.

That’s not to say that Carnival Row is a bad show. It actually does a pretty decent job of building a credible fantasy universe. Still, the series wasn’t exactly a huge hit in its first season, and I don’t know if it really has many fans who were desperate to see it come back now after being gone so long.

Carnival Row Season 2 (2023) - Orlando Bloom as Philo
Title:Carnival Row
Episodes:2.01 – Fight or Flight
2.02 – New Dawn
Release Date: February 17, 2023
Watched On: Amazon Prime Video

The series is set in a steampunk-ish timeline somewhere between the Victorian era and the early 20th Century, and furthermore in a world where mythological creatures such as fairies and satyrs are real and make up significant minority groups in the population. Since the first season ended, things have only gotten worse for these “critch” (derogatory slang term for all non-humans) in the fictional Britain analogue kingdom of The Burgue. While they were already fairly oppressed under the regime of former Chancellor Absalom Breakspear, his murder greatly amplified public sentiments of bigotry and discrimination against anyone not fully human. Breakspear’s son, Jonah (Arty Froushan), has taken the reins of leadership and walled off the ghetto of Carnival Row, isolating the critch away from human society and leaving them to rot while a deadly plague sweeps through the slum.

Former police inspector Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) was revealed to be a half-breed last season and was kicked off the police force. He supports himself bare-knuckle brawling these days, while secretly planning to out Jonah as an illegitimate heir. Philo’s fairy girlfriend Vignette (Cara Delevingne) joined a resistance movement called Black Raven. We catch up with her leading a raid on a military supply train to steal medicine. Vignette is adamant that the group must remain non-violent, but when the murder of a soldier is pinned on fairies, the government executes the leader of the cause.

Meanwhile, Vignette’s friend Tourmaline (Karla Chrome) is haunted by the spirit of a dead witch (Alice Krige), who periodically possesses her body and makes her kill against her will. Could this have something to do with that dead soldier?

Out on the high seas, liberated debutante Imogen Primrose (Tamzin Merchant) has fled The Burgue and lives aboard a ship hired by her wealthy faun lover, Agreus (David Gyasi). When the boat is accosted and forced to make port in a neighboring kingdom, they find the land in the midst of revolution. The city has been seized by a group called New Dawn, comprised of humans and fae fighting together to overthrow the government. In her continuing ignorance, Imogen mistakes the leader of this movement (Joanne Whalley, also currently starring in Willow on Disney+) for a lower-class servant and takes a frustratingly long time to wise up to her error.

Yes, that’s a lot of arcane terminology and a whole bunch of weird character names. Carnival Row is very dense on mythology, and I’ve barely skimmed over a fraction of it here. The lengthy video recap at the start of the season premiere helped a little to refresh my memory, but I’m still unsure that I remember everything of importance. On top of that, the plotting is rather complicated, with a variety of factions in opposition to one another, and political machinations that aspire to a Game of Thrones level of complexity.

Fortunately, the show is written clearly and coherently enough that I didn’t have too much trouble following along with the new season’s story despite these challenges. The performances are mostly pretty good. Although I doubt that Amazon poured nearly as much money into this series as its other big fantasy properties, The Wheel of Time or The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the creature makeup and visual effects are also very well done here.

All the same, the new season of Carnival Row continues to be extremely heavy-handed with its metaphors and political messages, which can be a turn-off whether you happen to side with those politics or not. Just as importantly, the series (this season in particular) adopts a very dour and miserablist tone that just isn’t much fun. Surely, a show about fairies shouldn’t need to be so damned gloomy all the time.

I enjoyed the first season of Carnival Row for the most part, and the new one starts off well enough that I’ll stick around to see it through. However, among the glut of big-budget fantasy series on streaming and cable these days, I don’t think I’d rate this one in the upper echelon. Had it been canceled at some point over the last few years and this season never come to pass at all, I’m honestly not sure that that I’d have mourned it too much.

Carnival Row Season 2 (2023) - Agreus and Imogen

Video Streaming

Carnival Row is unfortunately the type of show that simply looks too damn dark in HDR. Countless scenes are graded so dim that you can barely see what’s happening in them. Highlights in nighttime scenes rarely impress, and even those in broad daylight don’t appear to exceed Standard Dynamic Range. Despite being streamed in 4K resolution, the 2.40:1 image is also not especially sharp.

With that said, I must note that Amazon offers the show encoded in Dolby Vision on select Fire TV devices. I don’t have a Fire TV streaming device, and as a projector user, Dolby Vision is not an option for me anyway. I’ve read a few reports from viewers watching on Dolby Vision-capable flat panels who claim to get better results than I did. I can’t validate that for myself.

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is set for a very low volume. Adjusting for that, it has some decent bass activity, including during the opening theme music of each episode. Selected scenes (especially those involving dreams and visions) are very aggressive with surround and height activity, while most others are more subdued.

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