Carnival Row's preposterous character names are everything wrong with the show
I love fantasy, but I'll be the first to admit the genre has produced some pretty terrible proper nouns over the years. American Gods' eye-roll-inducing "Shadow Moon." Dungeons & Dragons' unnecessary "Drizzt Do'Urden." The Baroque Cycle's unpronounceable "Qwghlm" (gesundheit?). And don't forget about the spectacularly-named minor character in George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, "Dickon Manwoody."
Carnival Row, Amazon's first of several big bets on fantasy television in the wake of Game of Thrones, contributes heartily to this tradition: Orlando Bloom stars as the police detective Rycroft "Philo" Philostrate opposite Cara Delevingne's refugee faerie, Vignette Stonemoss. But the show's silly names are also indicative of something more than just poor judgment in the writers' room; they're evidence of its own shaky, shallow conceit. While Carnival Row aims to be the next big thing in fantasy, the result, sadly, is a lot of whimsical empty gestures.
Having originated as a film script that made it onto the inaugural Hollywood Black List in 2005, Carnival Row was eventually converted into an eight-episode television show with the help of Guillermo del Toro. But as far as modern fantasy goes, in execution the show is without the charm of The Magicians, the imaginative scale of Game of Thrones, or the visual accomplishment of Netflix's Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, also out Friday. The backdrop is the London-like city-state of The Burgue, where tensions run high between humans and the lower-class fantastical citizens like the faeries, who have fled their war-torn continent of Tirnanoc, and the fauns, who are employed by humans as domestic help (there are also centaurs, giants, kobolds, witches, and werewolves, for those keeping track at home).
While many fantasy stories use names as an easy way to imbue disparate peoples and creatures with a sense of culture — think of Martin's Dothraki, whose names use crunchy letters like K's and Q's, and almost always end in O's, or the Celtic influence on the names of the elves in J. R. R. Tolkien's novels — Carnival Row grasps at a muddle of influences, with zero etymological consistency. There are a smattering of Midsummer Night's Dream references ("Philostrate," the faun slur "puck," and, in the original script, a reference to an "Oberon Square"); religious names ("Piety," "Jonah," while actor Jared Harris is saddled with the unfortunate name "Absalom Breakspeare"); and names evidently picked just because they sound fun: "Ezra and Imogene Spurnrose" (the latter played by Tamzin Merchant, whose own name is better than anything in the script), "Ritter," and also an out-of-place "Sophie." There's additionally a "Nigel Winetrout" (really), a "Runyan Millworthy," a "Portia Fyfe," and some soldiers named "Bligh," "Crabbe," and "Ivos." And that's just the human characters.
There's no rhyme or reason to the creatures' names, either, though. The most egregious offense is "Vignette," which is literally just a fancy-sounding English word. There might have been a whiff of French etymology to the faerie names — "Tourmaline Larou" is another — but then there's also the Irish-sounding faerie "Aisling," the Greek "Moira," the floral "Dahlia," as well as one "Fleury," which on the one hand might be derived from the French flur, or could just be a homonym for "flurry," as in "a flurry of wings." To make everything even less consistent, the faeries come from the land of Tirnanoc, which seems to be a variation on the Celtic Otherworld "Tír na nÓg."
On occasion the names are picked with more intention. The faun Agreus Astrayon is clearly named for one of the pans in Greek mythology, for example. Yet there is no consistency here either: another faun is called "Afissa" (an Algerian surname?) and another "Quill" (now we're back to Irish). Muddying the logic further, the fauns are from the continent of "Ignota," which is Latin for "unknown."
Admittedly, this is fantasy; there are of course no rules for how one needs to go about naming characters. But when such scattered and illogical references are taken in the context of the show, they begin to be more revealing. Carnival Row leans heavily on ornamentation to distract from shallow tropes and cliché plots. But whimsical sets do not make a show inherently interesting. Neither do fancy-sounding names like "Vignette," which only serve to gussy up the one-dimensional characters underneath.
Besides, names are only one of many inconsistencies that cloud a viewers' access to the world: "[M]ost in the Burgue have British accents," is another example noted by io9's Jill Pantozzi, while "Vignette's is Irish, wrapping a whole other level of historical reference into an already muddled universe." And while we might have a vague sense of different continents referenced in dialog, Carnival Row is physically amorphous, existing without defined geography.
Much of this can likely be blamed on Carnival Rows' origins as a film script; the creators simply never had the space to work out the world-building the way fantasy TV adapted from books does. The problem is, it shows. What Carnival Row lacks in curiosity about its own realms, it attempts to make up by being decorative. Even this is strangely incoherent though, a mix of Victorian, Bavarian, and World War I influences that never quite coalesce. (Syfy reported yesterday that Carnival Row's backstory is to be fleshed out in two forthcoming comic books, which will hopefully help the show's already-approved second season).
Carnival Row is clearly gunning to be the next Game of Thrones — there's even a "chaos is a ladder"-type speech in the final episode, as well as an unnecessary incest plot-line. But while you get the sense that George R.R. Martin's novels only scratch the surface of his conception of Westeros and beyond, Carnival Row feels like it still has the scaffolding up.
And with those as my choices, I'd happily take Dickon Manwoody after all.