A Carnival, And So Is Death
by Noel Holston, Newsday (January 5, 2005)
HBO's myth series returns Sunday for another
At the Emmy ceremony in September, "Carnivale"
took home awards in the drama series category
for main title design, costuming, hair-styling,
art direction and cinematography. All five trophies
were well deserved. There was no series on television
more visually arresting.
The unfortunate thing
was, it desperately needed its mesmerizing optics
to forestall viewers' boredom.
is nothing if not ambitious. Against the backdrop
of a ragtag carnival traversing the bust-dusted
Heartland in the 1930s, it teased a looming
battle between the forces of capital-letter
Good and Evil, an Armageddon-esque clash worthy
of Dante or Tolkien, that could determine the
fate of the world.
A tall order, to be sure,
but series creator and co-executive producer
David Knauf assured entertainment writers that,
unlike so many myth-based series that have failed
to deliver on their promise or even to maintain
a steady forward momentum, his was carefully
thought out. "We know what we're going
for," he said.
Maybe he did, and maybe
he still does, but halfway through the series'
initially intriguing first season, I started
to feel like a child on a vacationcar ride:
"Are we there yet?" So what if the
scenery is great. At some point you just want
to get somewhere.
I still had that road-to-nowhere
feeling after watching the first two hours of
the second, 12-episode cycle.
The first cycle ended
on a cliffhanger note: Young Ben Hawkins (Nick
Stahl), the chain-gang fugitive and miracle
healer to whom the carnival folk gave refuge,
strangled Prof. Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), the
troupe's blind mentalist, to restore the life
of Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), the snake handler.
Ben had finally accepted the harsh reality that
he can save a life only by taking one. Meanwhile,
bum-legged ex-baseball player Jonesy (Tim DeKay)
had rushed into a blazing trailer trying to
save his true love, Sofie (Clea Duvall), from
the fire that her paralyzed, psychic mother,
Appolonia (Diane Salinger), had started telekinetically
to stop her from leaving. (Boy, this must sound
laughable in print.) And Brother Justin (Clancy
Brown), who's eitherthe devil incarnate or his
top advance man, was about to start recruiting
his army of darkness by way of regular radio
Sunday's season opener
and next week's hour advance the story ever
so slightly. I won't spoil it for the series'
remaining loyalists by revealing who, if anyone,
dies. I'll just say that while the show remains
a thing of harsh, weathered beauty, it also
seems more pretentious than ever, its bloody
religious symbols and mystical mumbo jumbo increasingly
supernatural drama about a Dust Bowl-era traveling
carnival begins its second cycle of 12 episodes
Sunday night at 9.