Friday, November 19, 2010

The Argument For Sticking With A Program: Carnivale Season 2 On DVD

The Good: Great story, Amazing acting, Surprising character twists
The Bad: Story is truncated (no real story resolution), Could use more DVD bonuses.
The Basics: In an amazing second season, Carnivale accelerates the battle of good and evil between two avatars in the 1930's!

Carnivale is a series that has been sitting on my shelf for quite some time unwatched and it behooves me to follow that comment up with the understanding I have recently reached (yea therapy!): I intensely associate new experiences with the person I am experiencing them with. This is not a huge deal, but when the person with whom I enjoyed the first season of Carnivale (click here for my review of that!) moved out, I found myself unable to simply pick up Season Two from the shelf and get through it. Following that epiphany, I managed to have the time, mental clarity and devotion to actually watch Carnivale - The Complete Second Season on DVD.

And wow, am I glad I did! And oh, am I peeved! Carnivale's first season ran against nothing like it and it built an audience (I first discovered it on DVD). The second season ran against a little show named Lost and the intended five-year story was finished in two . . . or at least, that is what I thought. After all, if the writers and producers knew they were going down, they would be so kind as to finish the series off so there was nothing left hanging, right? Yeah, Carnivale doesn't do that. Instead, just as the story ramps up, it's over. I, for one, wish there were Whedon-like armies of fans behind Carnivale if for no other reason than to get a movie of the work done to wrap it up a bit neater.

Because this is a heavily serialized show, there are elements that cannot be mentioned without revealing some aspects of the series I purposely omitted from my first season review to encourage viewer integrity (it's no fun to read reviews that give all of the secrets away!). That's the closest to a warning I can give . . .

Picking up where the first season left off, Apollonia's trailer is ablaze and Jonesy is able to rescue Sofie from her dying mother's grasp. Ben and Samson, under orders from Management, dispose of Lodz's body. Soon, though, Lila is asking questions and demanding answers, and the Carnivale leaves with Ben searching for Scudder. As Hawkins leads the traveling circus across the dustbowl, Brother Justin Crowe - guided by visions - establishes his congregation near a hillside he names New Canaan. There, he begins to compel his followers to converge, including a small army of criminals and Reverend Norman Balthus, who is recovering from his stroke that he suffered upon seeing Justin's true nature.

As the Carnivale folks fall apart with infighting and suspicion, Brother Justin summons a killer named Varlyn Stroud to find Scudder. Stroud quickly discovers that Hawkins is on the same quest and begins to use brutal means to insure that he will get to Scudder before Hawkins (including burning another traveling carnival to the ground). As Hawkins comes to understand and accept his powers and the sacrifices that must be made whenever he heals someone, Brother Justin's true nature begins to become apparent to those closest to him as he sexually abuses the women in his care while his sister, Iris, waits for the right time to take him on.

Carnivale is television not for the feint of heart. As an HBO series, it is graphic, dark, depressing and demands attention. Like Lost, Carnivale is a series that is deeply involved in terms of details. Every scene is packed with visual information that forces the viewer to watch and actually pay attention. Laced with the metaphors of dreams and a pretty striking storyline of good versus evil, Carnivale in its second season is leading to a bloody convergence and in that regard, it satisfies perfectly.

Indeed, unlike the first season where there existed still some ambiguity about who was on which side, the second season of Carnivale very clearly draws a line in the sand. Ben Hawkins, given the ability to heal by taking life from those around him, becomes firmly rooted as the moral center of the show in the second season, doing what he can whenever possible to limit the collateral damage to those around him. But it is Brother Justin who is finally outed for exactly what he is in the second season and that he is the demon slowly begins to dawn even on his loyal sister, Iris.

The thing is, the second season of Carnivale has more than one emotional climax and there are character-based cliffhangers that pretty much rule the series in a way that anyone who watched and enjoyed the first season would be surprised by. So, for example, following her mother's death, Sofie becomes distraught and leaves the carnivale. She is rescued by Ben, but when his quest to find Scudder becomes an imperative, Sofie suffers the collateral damage of that obsession.

In order to truly understand and appreciate the two storylines that are rushing toward a head in the second season of Carnivale, it helps to understand the characters. The primary characters in the second season include:

Brother Justin Crowe - Asserting his will through the use of this apparently benevolent radio program, he takes up in New Canaan where he begins to assemble his flock. He takes in Father Norman in order to be able to torment him, but when he begins to take in orphans to do cleaning around the house, his true evil begins to show more obviously,

Iris Crowe - Having found the beaten and raped bodies of the women Brother Justin has used, she continues to look to protect her brother by any means necessary. Soon, though, she realizes what Brother Justin is, especially when her involvement in the orphanage fire is about to be made public by Tommy Dolan,

Tommy Dolan - The businessman who has created the radio show for Brother Justin, he begins to investigate the orphanage fire and quickly concludes that it was Iris who burned the place down. He prepares to make a deal with the devil, though,

Varlyn Stroud - A simple and direct convict, he is called by Justin through the radio to find Scudder and he begins to leave a trail of dead bodies in that pursuit,

and The Usher - A wormy little man who keeps popping up with the texts that explain to Brother Justin just what he is and what he needs to do to make his power ripen.

On the other side, there are:

Stumpy Dreifuss - He has incurred severe gambling debts to people who come looking to collect,

Rita Sue Dreifuss - Recommitted to her marriage to Stumpy, she begins to make additional money the only way she knows how,

Libby Dreifuss - Estranged from her friend Sofie, she and Jonesy work to make amends and in a pretty incredible twist of fate, she marries the head Roustie,

Lila - Upset that no one seems to care that Lodz has disappeared, the bearded woman begins to mount an insurrection amongst the carnies. As she prepares to overthrow Samson and Management, she gets an unexpected visitor,

Ruthie - Having been resurrected by Ben, she begins to see the dead Apollonia and becomes a conduit for Lodz who actually has something useful to contribute. Shocked at her sleepwalking activities, Ruthie is disappointed when Ben begins to avoid her,

Sofie - Lost following Apollonia's death, she begins to have more and increasingly troubling visions. Tormented by the visions, she takes comfort with Ben, who is forced to leave the carnivale to find Scudder before Stroud does. That desertion compels her to find her own way . . . to New Canaan,

Jonesy - Heartbroken over Sofie, the wounded roustie finds himself healing without Rita Sue, as well. Soon, though, he begins to notice Libby and shortly after they are married, there is an accident on the Ferris wheel and he is dragged off to the middle of nowhere to die,

Samson - Having had it with Management jerking him around, he pressures Ben to come clean with him, at the very least. Defending Management puts Samson in a dangerous position and the carnivale is forced to use all of its resources to aid Ben in finding Scudder,

and Ben Hawkins - Reluctantly admitting his abilities to Samson and his need to find Scudder, he becomes even more tormented with visions that threaten his sanity. He is tortured by his hillbilly cousins, romanced by Sofie, pursued by Stroud and protected by Jonesy and Samson. Soon, though, it becomes clear that the evil of the priest is growing too quickly and Ben prepares to do everything he has to to stop him.

The second season of Carnivale hits its marks so consistently because Ben is finally the hero in the process of becoming that the viewer has been waiting for. Tired of rejecting his gift, Ben finally begins to explore it and in one of the final episodes of the set, the climactic moment is an amazingly uplifting scene where he fully embraces his destiny. Ben becomes a hero that the viewer wants to see succeed and, frankly, it's about time!

The second season is also a bit more graphically violent than the first season, especially with the way that Brother Justin sexually abuses the women in his care (the implied incestual rape in the first season remains just that, but he's pretty despicable in very on-screen ways this season). There's the regular amount of nudity, which makes sense given that Rita Sue and Libby are strippers, so those who are squeamish with that sort of thing ought to know it at least.

That said, the second season forces the character to develop against a loudly ticking clock. Each episode from the first in the season gives a feeling of accelerating toward something big. Unlike the first season which was much more about planting the seeds and ethereally creating a dangerous mood, the second season walks, jogs, runs, then sprints toward devastation and it is a true cinematic crime that the series was not continued. In large part this is rumored to be because Carnivale was so expensive to make. The thing is, on DVD, it looks amazing. The second season truly does develop like one massive film and it pays off incredibly well (sort of . . .). What is paid off is paid off well, but literally in the final frames of the finale, the show takes an abrupt and dangerous left turn that leaves the viewer begging for more.

Part of the reason the show is so consistently great is in the acting. While there is a pretty impressive ensemble cast consisting of Amy Madigan (Iris), Michael J. Anderson (Samson), Adrienne Barbeau (Ruthie), and Clea DuVall (Sofie), the show essentially hinges on the performances of Clancy Brown and Nick Stahl. Clancy Brown played the first season of Carnivale in such a way that the viewer was left wondering just how much Brother Justin actually knew about himself and that worked. In the second season, Brown opens Justin up with a much more menacing sense of physical presence. Brown is able to sneer and smirk and convey a quietly brewing evil that makes his character far more rich than most villains on television and despite how despicable his character becomes, he remains a pleasure to watch.

But it is Nick Stahl who rocks much of the second season of Carnivale. Perhaps best known for his role as John Connor in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, Stahl is given the difficult task of portraying a hero reluctant to be heroic. He pulls it off wonderfully, slowly developing Ben into a man who stands straighter and actually is able to articulate thoughts and feelings. Unlike the way he was forced to play Ben dense in the first season, as Ben grows, Stahl is able to build upon the character with his performance and it works.

On DVD, Carnivale - The Complete Second Season contains three commentary tracks (I wished for even more, but alas, this is what we have). They are informative, but do not give away nearly as much information as many of us would have liked given that the series ends here. As well, there was a decent featurette from the Museum Of Television And Radio (I'm thinking that's one of the places I have to go next year . . .) with some of the cast and a documentary on the apocalyptic nature of much of Carnivale's storyline. The bonus features are good and about as plentiful as one would expect from an HBO DVD feature.

Sadly, though, the series ends here, but it ought not to be an argument against picking it up; after all, it's a hell of a ride while it lasts and it holds up wonderfully over multiple viewings. Indeed, more than one viewing will probably be needed to catch all of the nuances.

For less of a disappointment, one might as well pick up both seasons of Carnivale together and the complete series is reviewed here!

For other television works with the supernatural, please check out my reviews of:
True Blood - Season 1


For other television series reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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