I wasn’t expecting much of Carnival Row. I put it on just to have something to watch while eating my tea. The foundations of my prejudice were twofold. First, that many Amazon Originals are as lethargic and under-edited as their Netflix cousins, second, the casting of Cara Delevingne.
If that sounds mean, you’re misunderstanding. I think Delevingne is a good actress and, obviously, a great beauty. Had she been born earlier, she would surely have been a megastar of the old studio system, a Harlow, a Hepburn. But she seems to have a knack for picking…. not great projects. Valerian, Suicide Squad, Pan… I think the last film where she actually got to display her talent and not merely her looks was Paper Towns and that was way back in 2015.
So, it makes me truly happy to say that, finally, Delevingne has both a role and a project worthy of her. Rene Echevarria’s Carnival Row is a fantasy set in a quasi-Victorian world. The world is divided between humans and the Fae, mythical beings such as fairies, kobolds and satyrs. Not steampunk, steampuck. Delevingne plays Vignette, a fairy who was once in love with a human soldier called Philo (short for Rycroft Philostrate, played by Orlando Bloom). Thinking him dead in the war, she is greatly put out when she pitches up in the city of Burgue to discover him hale, hearty and now a police inspector:
Their romance; the fights, the kisses, the misunderstandings is sweet, believable and, unlike most fictional couples, I didn’t want to vomit every time they were being flirty (see Valerian). Bloom’s gruff ‘copper wiv ah ‘eart of gold’ is a charming foil to Delevingne’s peppery, ferociously focussed fairy.
If this was it, Carnival Row would have enough to keep me watching. But where it excels is that this is only one of several stories which it skillfully interleaves such that the viewer never tires of one particular thread.
Pictured above are Agreus Astrayon (puck) and Imogen Spurnrose (human). Their story is a delicious slow burn with plunges into quality bickering and hugely entertaining high-society cringefests.
BUT THERE’S MORE
If I had a subheading for Carnival Row, it would be FORBIDDEN PASSIONS. It delights in exploring the constructed world’s societal norms / taboos and those who dare to break them. Whether it’s incest, homosexuality or inter-species sex, Carnival Row is going to go there.
Oh yes. It’s like your browser history.
Repeatedly, characters in Carnival Row walk to the edge of what is normal, what is allowed, what is polite and then cross that line. The most poignant of these moments is between various couples and these exchanges are the most affecting of the whole show. I’m lucky enough to know the electric, transformative power that kind of an intimate relationship can have. This is the only television drama I’ve yet seen to depict that with more reverence than prurience. If you’ve ever looked into someone’s eyes and shivered because they are changing you, stretching you, freeing you in ways you could not previously countenance, you will find yourself in Carnival Row, as I did. There is an emotional realism in this fantasy show that outdoes numerous plodding, ‘realistic’ Scandi crime dramas.
Carnival Row is a better show than Game of Thrones. It has better writing, better acting, better direction and, crucially, it’s about something more than closeness to a book or fan service.
Not just something, it’s about the most important questions humans can consider. It’s about morality, it’s about law, government, immigration, xenophobia. It’s about those in power who use chaos and pain for their own gains, whatever the cost in lives lost and tears shed.
I’ve just watched the end of the last episode of series one and it had me in bits. Delevingne and Bloom were perfect in the final scene, their story was the lynchpin of all those interweaving storylines finally coming together. Carnival Row is compelling without sinking into mawkishness. It makes cogent, informed and insightful points about our contemporary world, the antithesis of clunky ‘message’ shows which ulitmately render evil banal and the viewer apathetic. In the bestest way, this is destabilising, unsettling TV.
Carnival Row is easily the best TV of 2019. It will probably become one of my favourite shows ever (as long as subsequent seasons don’t piss on this head start). So, like all the best people of the Burgue do, ignore your prejudices and give Carnival Row a go.
I’m watching a YouTube vid previewing upcoming games for late 2019 / early 2020.
And I’m bored.
There’s a slew of FPSes, some open-world, some not. There are some RPGs, there are some top-down tactical hoo-has.
And that’s it. It’s the blandest offering of blanditude I can remember in a good long time. There’s nothing that’s made me stop and look. Games seem to have become about as diverse as mainstream cinema. If you love the MCU, yaaay, if you don’t…. perhaps don’t go to the cinema, eh? Cos that’s all that’s on. There are no completely new, completely original SF or fantasy films that haven’t got a tie-in to some existing property because those are a risk, they don’t get financed.
Here, in no real rank order, are some of the games I love:
Impossible Mission II
Grand Theft Auto IV
Horizon Zero Dawn
Parappa The Rapper
Resistance: Fall Of Man
Mario Kart 64
…. I could go on and on but I think you get the point. I’ve been playing video games since they were first invented in the late ’70s. That started off as huge Space Invaders cabinets in takeaways and ended up with sleek consoles sat next to my telly.
All the games above, whether they are the simplest sprite-chuckers or the latest in polygon-chugging engines, do one thing: they create an immersive world.
That may seem a bold claim for Defender but when I was playing it decades ago, that minimal, blocky display was everything. It was as engrossing and terrifying as the tiny proximity display they use in Alien to map how close the xenomorph is. We uprezzed the graphics in our minds.
Then you have Horizon Zero Dawn, a game which creates a world so gorgeous and detailed that I play the game just to escape, to look at the lush scenery and relax.
These worlds stay with you. Liberty City. Rokkaku-dai Heights. The Halo Array. Snowy banks lit by exploding fireworks. The echo of your footfalls down endless laboratory corridors…
But I feel like Big Games are getting worse at creating these worlds because the Big Game Developers all seem to be in a race to see who can reach the absolute nadir of consumer exploitation first.
Thus, we have the Newspeak that is ‘SURPRISE MECHANICS,’ EA using weasel words to justify milking anyone with a gambling addiction in its games.
Now, okay, EA have been wankers for decades, we all know that. This shift to evil isn’t a SUPRISE MECHANIC (heh, see what I did there?).
But I feel like the Big side of the industry has never been worse, has never been as nakedly, proudly evil. Now, obviously, we have the indie side which is crammed with lovely, lovely people who are games obsessives and want to create the kind of immersive experiences that we, the users, want to fall in love with. Hopefully, that side of the industry will never change and never sell out.
But GTA IV was not an indie game. It was huge. And I love it. I love it more than any previous or subsequent GTA. For me, it was the sweet spot. I mean, come on, even now, you could film the story of Serbian immigrant Niko and his travails in NY, er, Liberty City and people would love it. It’s a great STORY. Moreover, when you’re playing GTA IV, not only does the world around you look good, real, its *sounds* real. All those radio stations you can flick through, all those news snippets and op-eds you hear, they all cement you into that reality.
I miss that world. I miss Liberty City. And I miss all the other worlds other beautiful games have created. They could be as simple as Interphase or as complex as Detroit Become Human, the immersiveness doesn’t derive from polygon count.
It comes for the hearts of the people developing the games. When you play Horizon Zero Dawn, you know the developers didn’t skimp. They didn’t have a ‘will this do?’ attitude. You can see it in the firefly animations, you can hear it in the ridiculous ‘gobble gobble’ of a disturbed turkey as it legs it. These designers weren’t phoning it in. There is love in this game for the world they are creating.
It’s obvious the industry will not stop being evil. So, they need regulation. Hard regulation. It is not okay to exploit people who may be gambling addicts. Micro-transactions and lootboxes have made me avoid every major title in the last year or so.
Maybe a side-effect of banning these obvious money-grabs would be the creation of some stunning NEW worlds in which we could lose ourselves.