The last time Judge Brendan Babish went to the carnival, a robotic fortune teller turned him into a six foot tall computer programmer. Since then, he's been living off of Oreos and Cheese Whiz.
Our review of Carnivale: The Complete First Season, published January 12th, 2005, is also available.
Their journey. Their battle. Our future.
Carnivàle is an HBO period drama that ran for two seasons, from 2003-2005. The story takes place during the Great Depression, and involves an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, conveniently represented by a group of carnies and a clergyman, respectively.
Facts of the Case
On a whim, the young orphaned farm hand Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl, Bully) joined the carnival as it passed through his town. Slowly, he learned that he had powerful supernatural powers, most prominent of which was the ability to heal wounds, and even raise the dead, with the touch of his hand. The carnival (named Carnivàle) is owned and operated by the unseen Management, who appears as a disembodied voice and only speaks with Samson (Michael J. Anderson, Twin Peaks), the diminutive field supervisor. As Hawkins ingratiates himself into the Carnivàle community, befriending snake charmers, tarot card readers, and the like, he becomes haunted by prophetic visions of death and apocalyptic horror.
Though the two have never met, the charismatic preacher Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown, The Shawshank Redemption) is featured prominently in young Ben's dreams. Crowe, who is building a mega-church in California, believes God has tapped him to spread a violent interpretation of the gospel to America's downtrodden. He believes this so strongly he is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. Ben Hawkins is the only man who can stop him. Justin knows that Ben is the only man who can stop him. Ben knows that Justin knows. The two are headed for a showdown.
While Carnivàle,'s ratings were initially high, they slowly dwindled while the show's budget escalated. The ratings did receive a bump during the second season, but HBO still cancelled the show shortly after the final episode aired. Series creator Daniel Knauf had originally stated that Carnivàle would encompass six seasons, but with the show's sudden cancellation most of its storylines were left unresolved. However, there are currently several on-line petitions pleading for the show's resumption, and there are rumors HBO may greenlight a Carnivàle mini-series to wrap up all the loose ends.
When Carnivàle premiered nearly three years ago, HBO was riding a hot streak. With The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire, they had three of TV's best dramas all on their station. Though I've never been a fan of fantastical dramas (I'm one of the few people I know who didn't care for the Lord of the Rings trilogy) I eagerly anticipated Carnivàle, primarily because of HBO's stellar track record. Though I was consistently underwhelmed by the show's deliberate pacing, there was always just enough action to bring me back for the following week's episode. But by the end of the first season I found myself sporadically engaged and mostly ambivalent about the following year. I don't remember when the second season premiered, but after I missed the first episode I never made an effort to catch up.
Recently, I've been hearing that this season was a clear improvement on the first. When the DVD set came out, I was anxious to see for myself. Turns out, I still find myself somehow unengaged. This is particularly galling because Carnivàle shows such consistent creativity and intelligence that by all rights it should be more entertaining. In fact, Carnivàle may be one of the best shows I have ever seen that I still cannot recommend to my friends.
The show has numerous and diverse strengths. The acting is as strong as you are going to find on television. There are too many noteworthy performances to list, but Michael J. Anderson, as the sassy Samson, and Clancy Brown, as the brooding Justin Crowe, both give what may be the best performances of their careers. In this huge cast there is not a weak performer in the bunch. And what is equally impressive as their fine performances is how every actor seems to fit in so seamlessly with the show's antiquated time period.
The show also expertly handles the religious symbolism and mysticism that is central to its plot. An overabundance of religiosity, or a ham-handed use of supernatural, could have easily turned this show into high budget camp. However, Carnivàle infuses religious imagery seamlessly into its storylines, and the show's writers seem to have a firm grasp of the firebrand version of Christianity that seems to be far more popular in dire economic times. The series also never overdoes the use of magic or the supernatural, either; if anything, more of that is needed. Make no mistake, Carnivàle is not so much fantastic as it is a sobering drama with fantastic elements.
While I admire the balance the show attempts to strike, I simply have trouble getting absorbed into the story. Like the first season, the second season of Carnivàle suffers from being overlong and burdened by long stretches of ennui between moments of action or confrontation. This is especially frustrating because each episode contains several involving sequences (most often involving the dastardly Crowe) that too often seque into mundane domestic squabbles or repetitive carnie chatter. Ultimately, Carnivàle is a show that rations its drama so sparingly that it ends up petering out like the swirling dust in the Oklahoma plains.
HBO has put together an exceptional box set for this second season of Carnivàle (perhaps to make up for a premature cancellation). The series is spread out over six discs that are housed in a striking gatefold box. Each disc contains two episodes. The color is sharp and bright enough that you can nearly make out each individual grain of sand in the Utah desert. For a show with wildly creative set designs, this strong picture is a major plus.
HBO has also included plenty of worthwhile extras to round out the box set. In addition to three informative commentaries with the series creator and selected cast members, there are two featurettes fans of the show are sure to enjoy. The first is "Magic and Myth: The Meaning of Carnivàle," which features interviews with several writers and producers. I particularly enjoyed this because it laid bare the creative process behind creating an epic television show. Aspiring writers are sure to be surprised at how much of the show's seemingly carefully constructed plot was conceived by a room full of spit-balling writers. There is also a panel discussion with much of the show's cast. The appreciate crowd all seem to be big fans, and it is clear from their enthusiasm how much the actors enjoyed working on Carnivàle. Though I cannot include myself as a fan of the show, the audience and participants' excitement was infectious.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Carnivàle's budget may have ballooned over the course of its two seasons, but when you watch the show you'll know where that money went. This series has assembled a crack team of location scouts, set and costume designers, and make-up artists who have cumulatively re-created the 1930s Dust Bowl on film. Several times during each episode I found myself marveling at how accurate and authentic Carnivàle looks, from the grimy carnie costumes to the never-ending fields of tumbleweed. Say what you will about the show's content, it accurately depicts a long defunct time period better than any movie or TV show I have ever seen.
Carnivàle creator Daniel Knauf conceived a story that he claimed would take six seasons to tell. I can't help but think that this idea of stretching the show over so many years artificially elongated a series that would have been better served by a more brisk pacing. Though the episodes all look fantastic, and the show boasts stories that are creative and sporadically enthralling, it never picks up much steam and will definitely put many viewers to sleep.
Though there is much to praise here, Carnivàle is ultimately guilty of long-winded storytelling.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by creator Daniel Knauf, executive producer Howard Klein, director Rodrigo Garcia, and cast members Clancy Brown and Clea Duvall on three episodes
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