Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video
Amazon is reportedly spending more than a billion dollars on their upcoming Lord of the Rings show, but they must have saved a hefty chunk of change to pay for Carnival Row, a sumptuous steampunk mystery/fantasy/allegory that’s as jumbled and baffling as that mashed-up description sounds. Based on a movie script that’s been knocking around Hollywood since 2005, the eight-episode series—hitting Amazon Prime on August 30—is now swollen with a veritable bounty of intercrossing plotlines, none of which I can type about with a straight face. But here it goes.

Detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) tries to solve a series of Jack the Ripper–like monster murders in a sooty Victorian city called the Burgue that’s crowded with exiles from far-off magical lands—faeries, kobolds, and faun-like creatures called pucks. (The sociological commentary is not exactly subtle, although it doesn't really build on that commentary to offer insight.) Rycroft also has an on-again, off-again romance with a warrior-librarian faerie named Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), and there’s some half-assed political intrigue with Jared Harris and his pet bear, not to mention a Jane Austen–like subplot about a wealthy, uptight brother and sister who are scandalized when a puck moves in next door.

The whole thing is too whimsical for words, and it’s a little hard to divine Amazon’s target demographic, since it pairs storybook daintiness with Game of Thrones levels of sex and gore. I am impressed by the show’s dizzy smorgasbord of genre tropes, as though someone scissored up pages of comic books, mystery novels, D&D modules, and bodice rippers, and then pasted the pieces into a lavender-scented dream journal. It’s a full-swinged attempt at world-building, and it’s a little hard to hate on that. In fact, the series' best episode is the third, a flashback episode that takes place entirely outside of the city altogether, suggesting the show has potential to grow if it decides to explore beyond the Burgue. (The press materials even came with an intricately detailed map, which charts dozens of realms the show doesn’t even mention in passing.)

The Carnival Row map.
The Carnival Row map. Amazon Prime Video
But the main problem with Carnival Row is that none of this grandly designed mythology is any fun; instead, the show is a bafflingly glum-faced trudge through pretty basic all-creatures-are-created-equal moralizing. Apart from some goofy creature design and the outright silliness of seeing a bunch of faeries flapping around, the show is visually impressive, with top-notch CGI, costuming, and sets. But just remember—every time a faerie gets a pair of digital wings, an Amazon warehouse worker loses a decent chance at a living wage.

Nevertheless, I’ll be fascinated to see how people react to Carnival Row—as you might imagine, this is the kind of show that, for certain people, will be Very Much Their Kind of Thing. (Not to mention that these types of people are often vocally enthusiastic about the things they’re vocally enthusiastic about.) Amazon is releasing Carnival Row opposite Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which also requires a certain type of advanced-level nerdery, so one has to wonder if this might be too much niche geekery for one weekend. Then again, with Disney+ on the horizon and an almost unfathomable amount of genre storytelling making its way to our screens in the next few months, this could simply be what a post–Game of Thrones world looks like. It will be a feast for some of us.

All eight episodes of Carnival Row stream on Amazon Prime on Friday, August 30.

Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video