Carnivale: Season 2
It seems to happen all too frequently now. A series dares to be different, aspires to reach beyond the normal and just as it is getting a chance to become fully developed the network cancels it. One of the most lamentable on this growing list of shows that died far before their time is Carnivàle on HBO. Everything about this series demonstrated that television can still posses quality and imagination. The basic theme is as old as time itself, a clash between good and evil. Instead of bringing the fight immediately to the forefront of the action Carnivàle took the time to build the numerous back stories, weaving a tapestry a full and rich as any great novel of literature. Perhaps this is why the series met an untimely end, the American public is not accustomed to having to think, put pieces together and pay attention to the plot. Many have said that the show moved too slowly but in making such comments they do a great disservice to this series. The hard core fan base could sit for hours and discuss the finer points of the series, dissecting each scene to fathom the clue each episodes planted. Instead of mindless action this series gave the public something not often seen on television, thought provoking drama.
The texture of the series was provided by the back drop, The American southwest during the dust bowl days of the thirties. The theme was one that is as old as story telling, the ultimate clash between absolute good and evil. Two main stories were driven towards each other, slowly, with purpose and impact. On the side of good is Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl). Ostensibly he works in a broken down traveling carnival as a roust about, a worker that helps to set up and break down the various exhibits. This slimly built young man was a lot more than the eye could see. He was also the ‘Prince’, an avatar of great power who could heal and even resurrect by drawing life from his surroundings. Ben was his generation’s ‘creature of light’, destined to save the world from the ultimate evil. That evil came in the form of Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown). On the surface Brother Justine was a minister but he used that guise to hide the fact that he was the ‘creature of dark’ whose purpose was to bring the world to a fiery destruction. He had the ability to create a vision that would show a person their greatest sins, usually forcing him to bend to the will of Justin. As Ben strikes out from the carnival to find his father, Henry 'Hack' Scudder (John Savage) and discover the mystery of his powers and fate Brother Justine is building an army or the displaced. Those tossed aside by the ecological and political turmoil of the time.
The manager of the carnival, a little person named Samson (Michael J. Anderson) learns the truth about Ben and uses the traveling show to help Ben track down his nefarious father. Also present in the carnival is Sophie (Clea Du Vall), a tormented young woman who is able to mentally communicate with her paralyzed mother Apollonia (Diane Salinger). As the season reveals she is bound by blood to the coming conflict and try as she does is unable to prevent her part in the end game. Assisting Brother Justine is his sister Iris (Amy Madigan), a woman that loves her brother and will do anything to protect him. As the season opens Ben finds himself faced with a moral dilemma. A close friend, Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau) has been murdered by the sinister Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau). If Ben is to bring her back to life then a human life must be taken in exchange. This brings out the secondary theme of the series, fate versus free will. Ben has the ability to save his friend but the cost is one that he is not easy with. This leads to his quandary over what he discovers is to be his fate, save mankind.
One of the best things about this drama was the cast. It was nothing short of perfection. Nick Stahl is great as the reluctant savoir Ben. While most heroes in good versus evil tales are shining, bold and self assured Ben is completely human. He is driven to find Scudder and uncover his past and understand his future, Ben is also initially unable to accept his power and the part he has to play. Standing at 6’ 3’ Clancy Brown has played many a towering and powerful villain. In this series he is at his best. He plays Justine as charismatic man who can preach to the masses while plotting destruction. Brown commands the screen in every scene he is in. In contrast Michael J. Anderson may only be 3’ 7" but his talent as an actor is larger than most. He plays Samson as part mentor for Ben and part Greek chorus for the audience. He is the glue that holds the characters together. Those out there that enjoy independent films will immediately recognize Clea Du Vall. She is an exceptional strong and versatile actress who brings her ‘A’ game to the series. She gives Sophie depth and humanity in a way few actors could. Sophie grows as a character in an organic fashion that invokes empathy in the audience. The secondary characters such as Jonesy, played impeccably by Tim DeKay are fully fleshed out with complete back stories. As the head roust about it is up to him to keep the rough and tumble men that work the show in line. Jonesy is a former baseball player, sidelined when some criminals shattered his knee when he wouldn’t throw a game. DeKay takes this and uses it to the best advantage possible. His portrayal of Jonesy is as an honest man, one willing to go to the line for what is right.
Daniel Knauf created a rich and wonderful complex world with this series. There is a whole mythology created, one that is parsed out to the audience in tauntingly delightful little pieces. In this way it is much like the X-Files only set in the dank and dusty thirties. This is a series that requires a commitment from the audience but your patience will be richly rewarded. IT might help in your understanding of the series if you go to Wikipedia and look up the series. They have a listing of all the internal rules Knauf’s mythology depends on. Even the setting of the dust bowl is fantastic. This was such a time of despair and disappointment in this country that it makes the perfect back drop. It is understandable why the displaced throngs would be drawn to Justine with his message of how the governments and banks caused their plight. The carnival is struggling to keep enough money in their pockets for food, something common in that day. Knauf also balances the typical fight between good and evil with a fantastic twist, destiny versus free will. While most of the characters have destiny to fulfill they are also plagued by their free will. For example, Ben wants to do what is right but there are times that doubt and hardship almost overwhelm him.
Even though it is almost unforgivable that HBO cancelled this series at lest their provided a better than average DVD for us to treasure. The anamorphic video is exceptional. You can almost see every grain of dust that clings to the characters. The Dolby audio is crisp and clear giving full dimension to the experience. For extras HBO did the right thing. Key episodes feature a commentary track by director, creator and cast. The chat is lively and informative with just a hint of sorrow over the demise of the series. There is a very interesting featurette of how the special effects makeup staff created the physical oddities and freaks from the rival Daily Brothers show. One of the best featurettes I have seen in a long time is the documentary of the mythology of the series. Rounding things out is a panel discussion with the cast about the series. Get this and of course the first season. One DVD you can watch key scenes over and over taking in every nuance and enjoy one of the best shows no longer on television.
On the heels of the skirmish man foolishly called The War to End All Wars, the dark one sought to elude his destiny, and live as a mortal. So he fled across the ocean to the empire called America. But by his mere presence, a cancer corrupted the spirit of the land. People were rendered mute by fools who spoke many words but said nothing... for whom oppression and cowardice were virtues... and freedom, an obscenity. And into this dark heartland, a prophet stalked his enemy. Until, dimished by his wounds, he turned to the next in the ancient line of light. And so it was that the fate of mankind came to rest on the trembling shoulders of the most reluctant of saviors...