The Good: Interesting story, Great Characters, Good Acting
The Bad: Requires Serious Investment of Time and Attention, Episodes Where Nothing Happens, Bonus Features, Expensive
The Basics: Despite the expense, Carnivale - The Complete First Season is a solid first chapter in an epic story of those who fight the battles between good and evil.
I'm a big fan of serialized television that uses the medium well. Shows like Babylon 5, Star Trek Deep Space Nine and Lost that require a certain investment on the part of the viewer in order to understand the series or receive the most bang for your buck intrigue me and I find to be the most enjoyable. I'm not so much into episodic television. I like serialized; it's more adult because there are consequences for actions and decisions and it often leads to the greatest amount of character development.
Carnivale joins my collection of esteemed shows that I enjoy for their serialized nature and without having seen the second season, I will say that - despite what comes below - Carnivale is not worth the investment of your money. Everything else I write might well contradict that, but in the end, Carnivale will be one of the greatest television failures of our times. Why? It is a heavily serialized, intelligently-written show that hinges on building to its end. It was canceled after its second season. The net effect of the series will be like having the first two books in a series, but not the last four. That can only, on the overall, be a disappointment. In most analogous literary terms, it would be like having Fellowship Of The Ring without The Two Towers and The Return Of The King for The Lord Of The Rings.
What one finds on Carnivale - The Complete First Season, then, is an engaging story of good and evil in the Dustbowl in the Depression. Put simply, Carnivale is a battle of archetypes wherein Samson, a dwarf who runs the traveling carnival, tells the viewer the story of the end of the Age of Magic in the United States.
When Ben Hawkins buries his mother, he is on the run from the law and in deep denial of himself. As a child he exhibited a power to heal that was supernatural and was ridiculed by his mother for it. Hawkins is picked up by a traveling carnival that is passing through as he buries his mother. Samson, who runs the show, learns from Management that Hawkins is expected and is told to take him on the road with the show. Hawkins finds himself in the company of psychics, blind mentalists, bearded women, Siamese twins, snake charmers, strippers and working class folk who assemble and run the carnival rides. As he learns about them and forms relationships, he slowly comes to accept and learn about his gift and what it means.
Meanwhile, in California, the preacher Brother Justin begins to discover his own powers, which begin in the form of disturbing nightmares. He takes over an abandoned bordello and makes it into a ministry for migrant workers and orphans with his sister, Iris Crowe. However, tragedy soon befalls the ministry and Brother Justin finds himself in a moral freefall as he begins to utilize his own talents under the guise of being a man of god.
Carnivale is a clever collection of intriguing, eclectic characters who are moving slowly toward a battle between good and evil. Despite the series' density and use of imagery and metaphor to keep the story interesting and dense, the concept is quite simple. This is the first chapter or volume in a story about an incredible battle between good and evil. And as a series, it works for that.
The problem is that much of the first season is spent establishing the imagery, mythology and ground rules of the "universe" that Carnivale is embodying. So, as individual episodes, Carnivale is hit or miss. In fact, the show is an episodic failure; there are episodes where nothing happens. We do not learn anything new about any of the characters, they do not form new relationships, have new dreams nor change in any meaningful ways. Instead, we simply experience what they are going through. So, for example, in "Insomnia," almost nothing happens to any of the characters and all we truly witness is Ben Hawkins fighting off sleep for an hour. And Brother Justin leaves where he is. It's possible to watch the other eleven episodes of the season and lose nothing by not seeing "Insomnia." Does it aid the mood? Yes. Is it indispensable? No.
And that's the rub of this whole experience. It's an expensive boxed set. For 12 episodes, the average price is in the $90 range. That's a lot of money, an obscene amount for a tease. As far as bonuses, Carnivale - The Complete First Season is a dud. One of the three commentaries (on "Hot and Bothered) is almost devoid of commentary and the only other bonus is a featurette on the making of the show. At least with Babylon 5, for the same amount of money, one gets a full season (22 episodes), a lot of bonus features and the promise that the story will continue to its planned conclusion. HBO missed a huge opportunity with Carnivale; despite the expense of making the episodes and the expense of the boxed set DVDs, finishing the series as a DVD exclusive series could only have benefited the concept.
In order to truly understand what HBO is scuttling, one needs to understand the characters of Carnivale. They include:
Ben Hawkins - A young man who realizes he has a gift for healing people simply by channeling energies from what has life to what lacks it. He finds himself conflicted, barely surviving nightmares that plague him, and desperate to understand himself, his gift and his past,
Samson - The face of the carnival, he effectively runs the show by executing the wishes of the mysterious Management. When Hawkins shows up, he finds himself in a battle with Lodz for control of the carnival,
Jonesy - An ex-baseball player, Jonesy works the rides at the carnival, befriending Hawkins as he tries to understand the young man. He soon finds himself drifting from his attraction for Sophie for a fling with another man's wife,
Ruthie - The snake-charmer, she soon takes an interest in Ben that is not as maternal as their age difference might suggest,
Sofie - The voice of the catatonic prognosticator Apollonia, Sofie has an initial attraction for Ben that is soon redirected in the most unlikely direction,
Rita Sue, Felix, Libby and Dora Dreifuss - The Kootch Dancers (and the man who promotes them), this odd family of strippers is strained and tested when a family tragedy and a series of infidelities overcome them,
Lila - The bearded woman, consort of Professor Lodz, she soon sees the advantages of her partnership and seeks to use it to advance her own agenda,
Professor Lodz - Blind, but with the ability to read the minds of Apollonia and Ben Hawkins, he soon finds his quest to help educate Hawkins was a way to regain the favor of Management,
Hack Scudder - The plague of Hawkins' dreams who is soon revealed to have a special connection to the boy,
Tommy Dolan - A radio personality who becomes intrigued with Brother Justin's story and interested in his sister, Iris Crowe,
Iris Crowe - A mysterious, dark and quiet support of her brother, Brother Justin who seems to understand his potential and his powers and accept them for what they are,
and Brother Justin - A man with a power to manipulate people and reality who seems to share a strange connection to Ben Hawkins.
With a cast this massive, there is little sense going through all of the performers. However, the acting in Carnivale is utterly convincing. The two main leads, Nick Stahl (Ben Hawkins) and Clancy Brown (Brother Justin) are perfect foils. Stahl instantly creates a character who one feels is out of his league and afraid of his circumstances. Brown embodies a man used to being in control who rediscovers the importance of remaining in command of himself and his surroundings.
Ultimately, Carnivale - The Complete First Season is a worthwhile, intense and moody show that is best watched from start to finish (repeatedly!) to appreciate the density, imagery and richness of the series. It is a growth piece that works best for mature audiences willing to commit to a dark tale that we instantly sense is building to something. And as far as that goes, the first season builds to an intense finale that makes the reader want to turn the page, or viewer to pop in the next disc.
It's a shame that HBO did not respect the series as much as the viewers, for while there is another volume for me to pick up (and I will), the tragedy of a work that is so painstakingly constructed but we know is not completed is that the emotional investment will ultimately be for naught.
For other wonderful debut seasons, please check out my reviews of:
True Blood – Season 1
V – Season 1
The Big Bang Theory – Season 1
For other television boxed set reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.