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Something Wicked This Way Comes

DVD REVIEW: Carnivàle: The Complete First Season

HBO’s admonishment that “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” couldn’t be more accurate in assessing a series that takes place in a unique setting, at an eccentric pace, with a remarkable sense of foreboding, and a penchant for unanswered question. Take a ride on the merry-go-round and hang on for your life as this biblical battle between good and evil starts to turn, like clouds becoming a twister.

Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), escapes from the chain gang in time to watch his mother die cursing him. As the bank prepares to demolish his house while he buries his ma, a travelling carnival comes out of the dustbowl to offer him a strange new life on the road. Meanwhile, in California, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a Methodist minister, begins to experience supernatural power over members of his congregation—a thief vomits money while a pederast sees visions of his evil acts. Vanishing into the wilderness in an effort to hear God’s voice, Brother Justin is unaware that his unsettling dreams are shared by Hawkins, half a continent away, as he learns, under the tutelage of the sinister seer Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), that he has the power to resurrect and to kill.

In a television universe where doctors, lawyers, and cops are de riguer, anything that steps outside these well-walked genres is something to get excited about. A series that takes the added step of venturing out of contemporary settings and exploring an interesting, and little explored—unless Steinbeck is involved—era of American history through the eyes of itinerant performers and a Methodist minister is to be applauded for covering new ground. That these characters are archetypal cannot be denied, but when Daniel Knauf’s writing staff plays against the archetypes, the audience gets a real surprise or two.

In considering characters, it should be noted that, thus far, the series has offered two casts: the carnies and Brother Justin’s flock. Neither side has crossed paths with the other, save the shared dreams of Hawkins and Crowe (birds of a feather?), themselves avatars of the forces of good and evil (respectively?). The writers tell the audience that both men are of a kind, but their nature is only obtusely examined through scenes where others discuss them. This third-hand exposition makes the show’s characters a veil through which the audience experiences the events and thus clouds the reality of the series with half-truths and lies.

While the depiction of character is a foremost accomplishment, the show’s slow, deliberate, and moody pace is another departure from the norm. Unlike network television, which must get the action going and build to forced climaxes for every ad break, the pay-cable medium affords much more latitude in structure. There’s no particular need to play up the tension to retain the audience through the commercials, and the viewer knows that HBO won’t pull the plug mid-season. As chapters in a book, the breaks between episodes seems almost arbitrary in some cases and one feels that the whole twelve-hour run could be seamlessly edited together. This disregard for traditional televisual values even extends to a flat refusal to tidy up the unanswered questions posed by the end of the year. There is a confidence in the writing that assures the viewer that all matters will be attended to, but it will happen in the show’s time, not the viewers’.

Creator Daniel Knauf and his collaborators offer informative looks at the evolution of the Carnivàle concept from a spec feature by Knauf to an HBO series following in the wake of the network’s success with innovative dramas like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Much is discussed of the show’s carnival advisers and their input and influence in the creation of stories for the show. Aside from the obvious chat over the pilot, two other episodes—“After the Ball is Over” and “Hot and Bothered”—seem peculiar choices for commentary since the mid-season stunner, “Babylon,” and the climactic “The Day That Was the Day” both feature more meaty material. Still, the nearly one-hour Museum of Television seminar featuring almost the entire cast, Knauf, executive producer Howard Klein, and the HBO programming executive responsible for commissioning the series, is worth the investment in time as the creators of the series discuss in detail the style and content of the show and how it differs from everything else in the market.

With its utter apathy toward the standard “rules” of the television, some might suggest that Carnivàle is an exercise in rebellion, but the bottom line is that this irreverent take on the medium is wrapped around a cracking story of good versus evil in a time when the world was more innocent and even more strange.

This review originally appeared in CS Weekly, circa December 2004, just before the second season debuted on HBO and the show’s cancellation was announced.

Text ©2004 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.
Images courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment.