overthinking the idiot box

February 27, 2006

History can make for great TV. For if we don't dramatize the past, then we're just...

Doomed to rerun it
Maybe I Should Save My Sawbuck
The pros and cons of watching Carnivale
by Jenni Powell

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. And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason.

And thus begins the television series Carnivale, a dark and gritty tale of good versus evil set during the Great Depression in 1934. The "good" and the "evil" center around a fugitive named Ben Hawkins (played by Nick Stahl) who is picked up by a traveling carnival after his mother passes away and his farm is foreclosed on and a Methodist preacher named Brother Justin Crowe (played brilliantly by Clancy Brown). Both men are having the same visions and as the series progresses, we become more and more unclear as to who is on what side and deliciously await the meeting of the two men and the joys of a final confrontation.

But there's one problem: the show's creator, Daniel Knauf, had created the series with a very strict six-season plan in place. While ratings for the show were initially strong, by the end of the first season, they were down significantly and though the ratings were slowly rising toward the end of the show's second season, it wasn't enough to save it. Breaking from their usual tradition of carrying shows through to the end, HBO confirmed that they were canceling the series on May 11, 2005.

So, yeah, four years away from "final confrontation" just ain't cutting it.
So, yeah, four years away from "final confrontation" just ain't cutting it. Not to mention that having a carnival full of characters, each with their own distinct plotlines, left more than a few loose ends hanging around.

Like many shows like it that have built up a cult-like following (there will be a CarnyCon this year, despite the cancellation), the campaign to revive the show began almost immediately after the cancellation announcement. Rumors abound of a final movie or four-hour miniseries to round out the series, a plan that, unfortunately, the show's creator is NOT supportive of. Knauf has been quoted as saying, "regarding a movie that 'wraps things up': if one airs, I certainly won't be a part of it. There's a decade of story left, 48 hours of screen-time. Ratcheting it down to a condensed version would be an exercise in futility AND a slap in the face of the fans. Moreover, it would be the worst kind of sell-out in the world. Believe me, it would be better to leave Carnivale unfinished than finished poorly."

But Knauf also admits that HBO owns all the rights to Carnivale, so they are fully capable of creating a movie or miniseries without Knauf's involvement. And there is much public outcry to do so. According to HBO's president, Carnivale's cancellation generated 50,000 angry e-mails to the network in one weekend. There are many websites dedicated to the cause, including savecarnivale.org and the HelpSaveCarnivale Yahoo group.

But let's, for a moment, wander away from the hope of a revival. Having the series stand the way it is now, is it worth it to take in the two seasons that made it on the air?

The answer is um...maybe.

From a historical standpoint (which, after all, is the meat and potatoes of "Doomed to Rerun It"), the series doesn't give us a whole lot of it. Stylistically, it beautifully captures the period. The show painstakingly tries to keep to the accuracy of the Depression era. I actually worked as an extra for one day on the show, playing a poor gypsy, and they required me to remove a small pair of pearl earrings I was wearing even though they were 90 percent sure I wouldn't even be seen in the shot (I wasn't). This was no small feat — I'd never removed the earrings since I received them on the day of my college graduation. But I admired the production's attention to detail, an attention that paid off with the awarding of Emmy's in Art Direction, Cinematography, Costumes, and Hair Design in 2004.

But looks are different from actual content. The visions of Ben and Father Justin are filled with war scenes, which we can conjecture are from WWI based on the soldier's uniforms, and there are references to certain characters being in the war, but it is a small focus of the series at best. This wouldn't be so disappointing if it weren't for the fact that the title sequence of the series is filled with shots of important historical events of the time period beautifully intermingled with artwork from a deck of tarot cards. This title sequence garnered the series yet another Emmy award, this one for Outstanding Main Title Design.

So yes, it's gorgeous, but don't expect to learn a whole lot about the Depression or WWI.

Then there is the pacing. To say the first season was nothing but one long introduction would be an understatement. But if one doesn't have the time to take in the entire series, there are several stand alone episodes that I can wholeheartedly suggest from season 1. The first is episode 5 ("Babylon") in which the carnival visits a mysterious town where the townspeople can only be found at night. And then there is episode 7 ("The River"), which opens with Brother Justin standing on a bridge, about to commit suicide. The episode was loosely based off of the French film La Riviere du hibou, which in turn was based off the Ambrose Bierce short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek. It has a beautiful "full circle" structure and contains the first major reveal of Brother Justin's past (yup, they didn't get there until episode 7 of a 12 episode season).

That is what makes the show unique: the moments when the bizarre and the mundane intertwine in a way that is not at all jarring, but indeed endearing.
A strength of the series is the acting. A unique aspect of the show is it's ability to take circus "freaks" and give them multi-faceted personalities, making us connect with them in such a way that their "freakiness" is not all that we focus on. We can relate to the young tarot card reader's fights with her mother... even though her mother happens to be comatose and speaks to her daughter telepathically. That is what makes the show unique: the moments when the bizarre and the mundane intertwine in a way that is not at all jarring, but indeed endearing.

And did I mention Clancy Brown is brilliant? He's brilliant. Many of his monologues are pure poetry and I'm tempted to say that they alone are worth taking in certain episodes of the series (see above).

In summary, would I recommend the series to anyone? No, not anyone. But for someone who has the time to take in a bizarre yet simplistic, slowly paced storyline, who isn't afraid of an open-ending, and who isn't a Depression/WWI era history buff: go for it, I doubt you'll be at all disappointed.

But I can't help but feel a bit like I did back when Twin Peaks ended so abruptly. Could it perhaps be the beginning of a Michael J. Anderson curse?

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Return to Season 2, Episode 11.