Take one part Great Depression, one part magic, one part P.T. Barnum, and one part Judge Joel Pearce, and what do you get? This review.
Our review of Carnivale: The Complete Second Season, published August 16th, 2006, is also available.
"Before the beginning, after the great war between heaven and hell, God created the Earth, and gave dominion over it to the craft ape he called man. To each generation was born a creature of light, and a creature of darkness. Great armies would clash by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then, nobility, and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was, until the day a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason."—Samson
Step right up, step right up to witness the uncovering of this new and fascinating series from HBO on DVD. You will marvel at its mysteries, shudder at its horrors, then leave baffled with questions about what's to come next.
Carnivàle could be one of the greatest feats of the history of television, depending on what's in store as the show continues. It perfectly captures the look and feel of the Dust Bowl during the depression, and its strange cast of characters is unusual and compelling. HBO has come to be known for its unique voice in the television world, and this may be its most refreshingly different offering to date.
Facts of the Case
In the first episode of Carnivàle, we are introduced to two men. The first is Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl, In the Bedroom), a chain gang escapee who is taken under the protection of a traveling carnival. He has the mysterious power to heal people, but it comes with a terrible cost. We are also introduced to Brother Justin (Clancy Brown, The Shawshank Redemption), a minister who has the uncanny ability to see into the hearts of the people around him. It's immediately clear that the two of them are connected in some deep and meaningful way, but at this point their only connection is through the harrowing dreams that they both share.
Although there are many things that Carnivàle gets right, its most impressive accomplishment is its historical positioning in the Depression. The situation of the area during this time period informs every other aspect of the series. Desperate times bring strange things out of the woodwork, among them the quest of the characters to find some sort of comfort in both the superstition of the carnival troupe and the assurances of the church. This belief in magic became suddenly important again, as the confidence that came with the 1920s suddenly began to fall apart. Likewise, church quickly began to take on apocalyptic overtones, bringing paranoia and fear to a generation of churchgoers. The series also looks back to World War I, the conflict that forever changed our understanding of the nobility and honor of battle. It also looks ahead to the explosion of science over the course of the following generation, which replaced for many that need for superstition and religion with the promises of technology and consumerism. Each detail in the series has been deliberately placed in order to capture the tone and ideas of the time. The end result is creepy and chilling at times, fun and exciting at others.
One of the things that makes Carnivàle so fascinating is its refusal to make put anything into black and white terms. In a story of a carnival, it would make sense to either focus on the real magic behind the scenes, or else use Ben Hawkins as a way to expose the trickery behind the process. In an epic tale of good vs. evil, it would make sense to draw the battle lines early, and demonstrate the difference between the good and evil characters. Fortunately for us, series creator Daniel Knauf is much more creative than that. There is a lot of trickery going on in the carnival, as Ben quickly discovers. The carnies use all of the classic tricks to pull money from their gullible and desperate audience. However, there are also mysterious powers at work here, perhaps more than most of them could possibly imagine. As well, even by the end of this first season it's unclear which of the two major characters is good, and which is evil. As in the carnival itself, many things are left to the imagination and speculation at this stage. I am very curious to see what will be uncovered later in the series.
The performances are all remarkable. The show is certainly centered on Ben and Brother Joseph, and both Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown deliver perfect performances. Stahl's gradual acceptance of his own power, and his subsequent struggle, are fascinating. Brown's presence and charisma is dazzling; he is both likable and frightening. He is an actor with a great deal of range, and he uses all of it in this series. Just as great is the peripheral cast. The creators of the series have taken the time to let us get to know and live with these characters. More incredibly, despite the supernatural nature of the show and carnival freaks, this is one of the most realistic and believable groups of characters I have ever seen on television. I don't want to describe any of them in too much detail, lest I destroy the enjoyment of discovering them all for yourselves.
As always, HBO has delivered on the technical end. The episodes are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The image looks fantastic, and doesn't have any of the flatness that seems to plague most television productions. The incredible details of the sets, costumes and characters are all accurately rendered, and the subtle design is captured with perfect colors and a rich black level. The sound is almost as good. Although the English 5.1 track sits mostly in the front channels, the rears and subwoofer occasionally kick in, highlighting certain moments.
This set, in addition to the very attractive packaging, has a number of great bonus features. Several of the episodes have commentary tracks with the directors, designers and producers. These commentaries help to explain some of the subtler aspects of the show, and reveal how carefully each detail was planned out. They are careful not to give away what's to come, and tell plenty of cool anecdotes from the production of the series. There is also a production featurette focusing on the work that was put into creating the look of the 1930s dustbowl. It starts as promotional fluff, but it quickly enters into an overview of the time period for people who aren't already acquainted with it. It once again drives home the shockingly high production values of the series. Looking at a small section of the show, you would guess that it's a high budget feature film if you didn't know otherwise.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the major complaints about the first season of Carnivàle is how little actually happens in it. Many people are frustrated by this, and wish that the narrative and epic battle could actually get started at some point. I do understand this sentiment, and at times I felt the same way as the curiosity of what's to come would begin to eat at me. It seems that a season of a show should accomplish much more than this, and the series will probably lose a large portion of its audience before the real story begins. That said, I have a lot of respect for the creators' decision to establish the show and characters for a season before jumping into the real action. When you see interviews or hear the commentary tracks by Daniel Knauf, it's obvious that he has really taken the time to plan the series. Most shows are structured tenuously, unwilling to hold off on some plot point because the show could be canceled at any time. On the flip side, many later seasons of shows feel poorly scripted, as though the story is continuing because the fans want more, not because it was designed to run that long. Everything in Carnivàle feels deliberate and planned, and I have no doubt that the series will continue to blossom into one of the most compelling and valuable offerings ever to be produced on television.
Despite my glowing review, Carnivàle is not for everyone. It's frustratingly ambiguous, and the dark overtones, religious references and strong content could alienate a number of viewers. More adventurous viewers that are looking for a world of magic in which to lose themselves could not ask for something better, though, and there is also the promise of a lot more to come. This could very easily become one of the coolest cult series in the history of television, and this box set is a great way to get a taste of it.
Although part of me wishes that more could have been revealed in this first season, it's good enough that I am willing to wait patiently for season two. Not guilty.
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