Created by Daniel Knauf
Distributed by HBO Home Video
Whoever said there’s nothing new under the sun? Originality isn’t dead. People just don’t bother looking for it anymore.
Such is the case with HBO’s “Carnivale”, a revelation in television over-shadowed in its day by simple-minded programming the likes of “New York Skanks Discuss Orgasms” and “Improv Movie Industry Show #5.” Critics scoffed at the series, throwing around words like “pretentious” and “confusing”, while general audiences scratched their heads, opting for reality television and whacky sitcoms. But like every truly great series, “Carnivale” grew and matured, gaining a small cult-sized niche of dedicated viewers that kept it alive for two wonderful seasons; a fan base that will continue to grow with the long overdue release of the second act.
Daniel Knauf’s epic weaves the complex tale of two “avatars” – chosen men who must wage war in the struggle between good and evil. Young Ben Hawkins (Stahl) is a chain-gang escapee with supernatural healing powers who falls in with a traveling freak show during The Great Depression. The heart of the carnivale is “Management”, an unseen creature intent on using Hawkins for some unknown purpose. On the other side of the country, a troubled minister named Brother Justin (Brown) is having his own internal struggles with his church, faith and manifesting powers. As their visions and abilities intensify, and they become more vulnerable to the influences around them, it becomes clear that these two fragile men are being unwittingly thrust into a “good vs evil” showdown of apocalyptic proportions.
Season One was deliberately paced and took its time to establish every character and story arc. Ambiguity was the name of the game, and at the end of its run viewers were still unsure who was on what side, which made more than a few people impatient. Season Two picks up the pace, getting right down to the nitty-gritty exposition within the first few minutes. As the season opens, Management informs Ben that he is a soldier for the light, forced to face and kill Justin, The Usher of Destruction. That’s right. What our good Brother mistook for divine intervention was really his own demonic powers.
Realizing their true purpose, Justin and his devious sister Iris (played to perfection by Amy Madigan) continue to build their empire, attracting legions of followers from across the country. The strategic advantage in the war of magic is Ben’s father, the elusive and powerful Henry Scudder (John Savage). As the carnival moves closer to Justin, Ben hits the road in order to find his father before the minister’s sadistic hitman. But the race through the countryside proves even stranger than the sideshow freaks, posing unique horrors of its own.
Everything about this show is class. A variable mish-mash of Todd Browning, John Steinbeck, and David Lynch, “Carnivale” is dramatic horror with masterful storytelling and well-drawn characters. The lavish cinematography, costumes, and production design capture the feeling of a big-budget period film, and the writers juggle the numerous story threads with ease.
To do an episode breakdown would be pointless. That would be like reviewing chapters in a book. “Carnivale” is one long, complex story, and if you don’t start from the beginning, you’ll be completely lost. That being said, all the stand-out moments occur this season as the players seize their destinies. Conflicts turn bloody. Ben discovers his family. Justin’s powers take shape. Management’s identity is revealed. The events in this year are truly explosive, and it’s a testament that the series doesn’t lose any of its mystique in the process.
Likewise, every cast member gets a big shining moment, especially when it comes to tortured protagonists Nick Stahl and Clea Duvall. Michael J. Anderson shows Samson at his most fearless, Adrienne Barbeau takes snake-handler Ruthie down a tortured path, and Tim DeKay’s tough-guy Jonesy walks away with show’s single most heartfelt moment. But the man of the hour is Clancy Brown, who elevates Brother Justin beyond the classic Anti-Christ archetype. Having walked the journey from troubled man of God to devil incarnate, Brown injects the kind of confusion and humanity you never see in villains. His words are so passionate that every viewer will identify with him on some level.
A lot of people may be hesitant to view an unfinished series. It should be noted that the chess pieces do in fact collide in the last episode with a quick and bittersweet showdown (it was never intended to be the finale) that nonetheless gives a satisfying closure to the main story arc. So, yes, patient fans will be rewarded with some resolution by show’s end. That doesn’t mean you won’t be cursing HBO for giving it the axe.
The video and audio presentation on this six-disc set is absolutely flawless. Extras start with a handful of audio commentaries featuring Knauf and several of the show’s writers and actors. These tracks aren’t really on the serious side with numerous giggles and cancellation jokes, but there are a few interesting anecdotes, and the writers even drop a few clues on what was planned for Season Three (before they’re quickly shushed by Knauf).
The most interesting feature is “Magic & Myth: The Meaning of Carnivale” – a lengthy “talking-heads” documentary where the show’s writers and fans reminisce and dissect the complex mythology, leaving no stone unturned. More insight is gained from the cast during a taped panel discussion at the Museum of Television and Radio, which is another interesting feature, aside for the gimmicky tarot cards that display the video. Rounding out the extras are “Creating the Scene” featurettes, which offer an FX breakdown of the show’s surreal dream sequences. As is the case with HBO’s sets, the price tag will set you back a bit ($99.99 retail), but for a series of this caliber and presentation this good, it’s worth every penny.
Over a year later viewers still feel the sting of its cancellation. But one thing is for certain: This show will never truly die. Just like the great “Twin Peaks” (also cut down in its sophomore year), it will only gain momentum with time. “Carnivale” will be forever cherished by an ever-growing legion of fans and in a medium dominated by fads, there is perhaps no greater reward.
5 out of 5
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