Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Carnivale - Seasons 1 & 2: More Than The Sum Of Its Parts!

The Good: Intriguing characters, Good story, Great acting, Costumes, Sets, Concept!
The Bad: Incomplete story, Lighter on DVD extras than I'd like for the price, No spacesaving benefits
The Basics: An excellent series, killed before its time, Carnivale - The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 is a worthwhile set for anyone who loves great supernatural dramas!

Every now and then there comes along a series that is ideally watched on DVD. Some - few - go the other way, like the second season of The X-Files where Scully's absence is somewhat glossed over without weeks in between her abduction and return. There are some shows that need to breathe and let time pass to actually have an emotional resonance with the viewer.

Then there are the shows like Carnivale where sitting and watching the episodes back to back to back to back makes for a much more solid viewing experience than watching episode by episode with a break in between. The reason for this is very simple: this is a heavily serialized show that takes risks and is largely telling one big, overwhelming story. As a result, to sit and attempt to describe some of the episodes is likely to leave the viewer or reviewer frustrated. After all, "Ben falls down a mine shaft and encounters the word 'Avatar'" or "Ben gets a knife from his crazy grandmother" hardly makes for an intriguing plot description that makes one want to tune in. Instead, episodes of Carnivale often are not so big on what happens in each episode as what direction the episode is headed in. The result is a series that is ideal to take in as almost one massive movie. The series builds upon itself quite well and characters continually reference things . . . but I get ahead of myself.

The Carnivale - Seasons 1 and 2 multipack is essentially the complete series of Carnivale, at least for now (I'm still lobbying for a movie to cap off the series!). This is a simply bundle pack of Carnivale Season 1 and Carnivale Season 2. There are no additional discs or features in this pack. In fact, there is no saving space either as this multipack is simply the two previously released boxed sets shrink-wrapped together.

What one finds in Carnivale 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.

In the first season, Ben Hawkins buries his mother and 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.

In the second season of Carnivale, 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 faint 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 starts apparently aimless, but is leading to a bloody convergence and in that regard, it satisfies perfectly.

Unfortunately, as the story's rising action continues to grow, the series ends abruptly. It turns out that Carnivale was incredibly expensive for HBO to produce, which seems strange because people pay money for the channel and those of us who refuse to shell out a ridiculous amount for these DVD boxed sets. Apparently HBOs bean counters couldn't take the long view and figure there was profit in selling more boxed sets eventually. After all, Carnivale is one of those series' that aches to be completed and it deserves more than some sort of television movie to do that.

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 Sofie 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.

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 that first season, he plays Justin with a remarkable ambiguity that keeps the viewer guessing up until the end. 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 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. He develops well from the slouching, mumbling Ben in the first season and as Ben grows, Stahl is able to build upon the character with his performance and it works.

On DVD, Carnivale contains six commentary tracks spread over the two seasons (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 abruptly. As well, there was a decent featurette from the Museum Of Television And Radio 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.

Ultimately, Carnivale is a worthwhile, intense and moody show that is best watched from start to finish (which is not a Herculean task as there are only twenty-six episodes) 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. It's a shame that HBO did not respect the series as much as the viewers; 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 series' by HBO, please check out my reviews of:
Six Feet Under
True Blood – Season 1


For other television season reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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

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