As we’ve come to expect from HBO’ original series, “Carnivàle” has an exceptional cast (Amy Madigan, Adrienne Barbeau, Clea Duvall, Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown to name just a few), strong characters, and complex storylines. Set in the 1930s with a carnival traveling through a country ravaged by the depression, its dusty vistas are filmed flawlessly and are as captivating to watch as the characters who inhabit them.
Yet something was missing.
It certainly wasn't mystery or fantasy that was absent during the series’ first season. “Carnivàle” is less realistic and more fantastic than its HBO siblings, but it is firmly grounded in both an era and an aesthetic that makes even the most absurd moments play realistically. Amid the dirt, blowing sand, and abject poverty, Sophie’s almost comatose, nearly immobile mother (Diane Salinger) communicates telepathically and telekinetically; Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) enters a person’s dreams by touch alone; apocalyptic dreams rage in character's heads; the god-like man known as Management communicates from and never leaves a trailer that appears to be empty; and the carnies visit a town inhabited by dead miners who kill a teenage girl in order to have a female companion.
The strong supporting characters inhabit the series’ two parallel storylines, which focus on two individuals whose lives are inexplicably intertwined but who have yet to physically meet.
Both have supernatural powers: Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) is “the one,” an 18-year-old convict with god-like powers to heal others and affect his surroundings; Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) is a literally self-flagellating, frequently rage-filled man of the cloth who has visions and can see others’ sins.
It’s an obvious dichotomy and an even more obvious turn to have the minister be evil and the murderer be good. But ultimately, it works, mostly because each is convinced that they’re the opposite. Ben rebels against his abilities while maintaining a single facial expression; Brother Justin is convinced he’s doing God’s work and always appears as though he's acting as a conduit for God while speaking to an enraptured congregation.
Like “Deadwood,” the characters speak in a dialogue that feels authentic, even if that authenticity is a modern interpretation. As Carnivàle manager Samson, Michael J. Anderson gets the best dialogue, dropping terrifically incomprehensible lines such as, “C’mon children, we got dust to shake” and “Damn straight. We rollin’ box ears way too long. Grouch bags empty. We don’t even got over-the-road money.”
Let there be plot...
Unlike “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos” and even “Entourage” and “Sex and the City,” what the first season of “Carnivàle” didn't have was a linear storyline. The series stayed interesting but by the end, never really managed to get anywhere. “The Sopranos” certainly moves in and out of storylines, but it’s always moving forward. Instead of unfolding, “Carnivàle” just kept folding back onto itself, making us feel like we were being blown around in a dust storm.
Yet it was still captivating. Perhaps it’s revealing that this Emmy-award winning series was nominated for and won technical Emmys only. The strength of the production overshadowed the weaknesses in the story, as it seemed like the producers and writers didn't really know what to do with this cast, characters, and set once they'd assembled it.
More frustratingly, the series’ complex, original mythology — which borrows heavily from religion and the reality of life in that era — has possibility that never seemed realized. Its setting during the Great Depression, between two world wars, contains rich possibility, but ultimately that was subjugated by the more fantastic elements. But those, too, had possibility.
In the opening moments of the first episode, Samson addressed viewers directly, saying, “Before the beginning, after the great war between heaven and hell, God created the earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called man. And to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then, nobility, and unimaginable cruelty. So it was. Until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity and man forever traded away wonder for reason.”
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Whether that sets up “Carnivàle’s” existence in a parallel universe or tries to ground it in our era doesn’t matter as much as its thrilling promise of something, anything. But just like Samson’s monologue, the first 12 episodes turned out to be all setup and no delivery. The battle between good and evil that promos promised never occurred; the two main characters never even met, except in dreams. There were a lot of hints but not many solutions. The revelations weren't all that revelatory, and the biggest secrets remained uncovered. Because of that, many moments felt gratuitous; they weren't there to serve a larger story. The murder of a girl who was the star of her father’s strip show was less disturbing than their family’s dynamics; the apparently incestuous relationship between Brother Justin and his sister Iris (Amy Madigan) was introduced but offers nothing and even weakens the effects of their unspoken bond as siblings.
Although the final episode had Ben taking a life in order to save another, even that felt like a letdown, because he'd already used his powers before, and his decision was apparent to us long before he was even aware he'd have to make it. Management and every other mystery remained an enigma. It’s not that the series had to force a meeting between Brother Justin and Ben, or give us the answers to all our questions. But some forward movement was necessary.
The series’ creator, Daniel Knauf, says in an HBO trailer that the first season is really a “prologue.” For the second season, we can only hope “Carnivàle” really gets on the road.
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