Everyone knows what Jeff Bezos wants. Everyone also knows stating your desires and achieving them aren’t necessarily the same thing. Nearly two years ago, Variety reported a top-down sea change underway at the Everything Store’s entertainment arm: Bezos had commanded then–Amazon Studios head Roy Price to find the next Game of Thrones, further clarified to mean “high-end drama series with global appeal.” The big-picture mission statement accompanied the cancellation of Z, a coming-of-age comedy about Zelda Fitzgerald, as well as series pickups for the Wong Kar-wai period piece Tong Wars, Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen’s dreamy fantasy Forever, and Seth Rogen–produced comic book adaptation The Boys.
In the time since, Amazon Studios has gone through some less deliberate upheaval. Price was ousted just months later over allegations of sexual harassment, then replaced by NBC’s Jennifer Salke, necessitating a very different sort of rebrand from Amazon than adjusting its programming. Even the supposed pivot from niche appeal to blockbuster hits hasn’t panned out so neatly. Forever had its fans, but turned out to be exactly the kind of quiet, polarizing, and ultimately discontinued project Amazon was supposedly shifting away from. The streamer’s two current Emmy standard-bearers are a microscopically accurate re-creation of upper-class Jewish Manhattan and a devastating story of a nameless woman’s redemption through heartbreak—both excellent, if hardly broad-ranging. Tong Wars has yet to materialize, and when it does, it’s hard to imagine the mastermind behind In the Mood for Love playing to the Westeros demographic.
The truth is that finding the next Game of Thrones amounts to finding the next genre-redefining, culture-warping phenomenon to defy the steady fragmentation of television audiences. Which means that every show, in its own way, is trying to be the “next Game of Thrones,” and that almost none of them will be. There is no show that doesn’t want to attract a massive fan base, just as there is no surefire way to acquire one. If there were, we wouldn’t be hunting for a new Thrones, because it would already be here.
Amazon’s workaround to this basic conundrum has been an extremely literal-minded reading of the assignment at hand. Many of the projects in Prime Video’s development pipeline are distinctly Thrones-shaped: high-budget fantasy epics (many based on pre-existing novels) that require the viewer to have both a good memory and a high tolerance for strange and silly-sounding proper nouns. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series will soon have its own ambitious adaptation. Most famously, a potentially 10-figure Lord of the Rings offshoot is in the works, guarded like a closely held state secret. And as of this Friday, there’s Carnival Row, a steampunk story costarring Legolas himself.
Cocreated by René Echevarria (The 4400) and Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim), Carnival Row is the first of Amazon’s more direct Thrones imitators to graduate from press release to actual binging option. In sheer investment, at least, the comparison proves apt; all the prosthetic horns and CGI fairy wings and London-but-not-really cityscapes cannot have come cheap. But Game of Thrones didn’t distinguish itself on expenditure alone; like George R.R. Martin’s books before it, the show stood out for exhibiting self-awareness in a genre hidebound by stale tropes. Carnival Row displays no similar appetite for subversion, as is its prerogative. But the resulting, straightforward story is less exciting for it—and less likely to satisfy Amazon higher-ups’ appetite for a show that fills Thrones’ cultural footprint, not just its broadest outlines.
The concept of Carnival Row is a metaphor, and not a particularly subtle one. Magic exists in this world, but the races that carry it, known as the Fae, are displaced refugees, siloed by armed conflict into a smog-choked, barely industrial city called The Burgue. Upon arrival, the Fae are stereotyped as useless, alien leeches, discriminated against in their jobs as manual laborers and forced into sub-sanitary ghettos where vigilante justice is their only option. The real-life parallels, both to nativism at the turn of the last century and the updated form of it that’s surged to power in this one, are hard to miss. But just in case you do, Cara Delevingne puts on an exaggerated Irish accent for good measure.
Delevingne plays Vignette Stonemoss, a Fae who’s arrived in The Burgue just as a serial killer has started to target her kind; Bloom plays Rycroft Philostrate, a detective working to solve the murders no one else in power seems to care about. Objectively silly as those names may be, stifle your giggles now. Carnival Row is determined to never, ever blink, maintaining the self-seriousness that’s kept fantasy a relatively niche concern for so long because buying into its stakes requires such an extreme suspension of disbelief. In its heady blend of Victoriana and fairy tale, Carnival Row recalls Penny Dreadful, the severely underrated Showtime drama that blended Dracula, Frankenstein, and even Dorian Gray into a new and potent mix. But Carnival Row doesn’t rearrange or toy with its influences the way Penny Dreadful did. It’s merely content to rehash them.
Bloom’s “Philo” is the show’s bowler-hatted, brooding version of a white savior, praised in the pilot as “one of the good ones” for taking pity on the disenfranchised. Vignette is a tomboyish fighter type who retains a soft spot for the one man—that’d be Philo—to ever pierce her armor. (After coleading Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and playing the smoke-laden villain in Suicide Squad, the former model seems to have a yen for VFX-heavy productions.) Rather than escalating to Jupiter Ascending levels of campy audacity, Carnival Row sticks to its story beats of not-especially-compelling political intrigue and rekindled romance; yes, there is a shot of Philo running his hand over Vignette’s wings during sex. It’s the kind of show to make you ask, “What the hell is Jared Harris doing here? Doesn’t he have better things to do for his Chernobyl follow-up?”
At the end of eight hourlong episodes and headed into an already guaranteed Season 2, Amazon is out many millions in elaborate costumes and expensive reshoots but not much closer to perfecting the Thrones formula than when Bezos first declared his intentions in 2017. Salke has repeatedly stressed that Amazon has no desire to replicate the Netflix approach of throwing everything they can think of at the wall to see what sticks, despite likely having the resources to do so. But that only puts a higher burden on swings like Carnival Row, would-be tentpoles with international premieres and elaborate press kits taking up space on critics’ desks. (A 3D diorama is involved, as is a prerecorded voice-over.) Carnival Row is just the first volley in a larger offensive; Lord of the Rings is yet to come. Still, what comes after that?