by Brian Lowry, Variety (January 6, 2005)
Throughout the first season of "Carnivale,"
the infuriatingly dense HBO drama, execs kept
assuring me the program would gradually become
less confounding. It didn't, but I kept watching
anyway. Now it's back for a second year, and
despite some overt exposition about what's at
stake, the series is again intriguing but less
than satisfying -- a concept more notable for
the unusual time and space the show occupies
than what it achieves dramatically.
Despite what amounts
to a two-credit refresher course in Carnivale
101 at the outset, anyone who hasn't bought
in yet needn't bother trying. Suffice it to
say the plot centers, sort of, on a reluctant
young man (Nick StahlNick Stahl) with strange
healing powers, who represents a potential savior
against the tyranny of a minister (Clancy Brown)
who is some kind of demon.
What sets "Carnivale""Carnivale"
apart is strictly its setting -- a traveling
carnival in the Depression-era dust bowl, blowing
through sordid corners of skeletal little towns.
From that perspective, the program remains technically
superior, from the main titles to the impeccable
production design to Jeff Beal's creepy score.
Unfortunately, very little
of what transpires involving the large cast
has much resonance beyond the moment, though
it's such an unusual backdrop for a series --
even without the apocalyptic showdown between
good and evil -- that it's interesting, just
never entirely fulfilling.
At the very least, the
two central figures, well played by Stahl and
Brown, now realize who they are and have begun
interacting through dreams that suggest something
BIG is in the offing. The question is how many
viewers will have the patience or endurance
to find out what.
That's because even infused
with a bit more clarity, there's still something
impenetrable and distancing about series creator
Daniel Knauf's vision, which, like the side-show
attractions, proves little more than a curiosity.
In that sense, Michael J. Anderson's presence
as carny boss Samson provides an appropriate
link to the equally perplexing "Twin Peaks."
As with that series,
this period-oddity has become an addiction for
a few, and the pay channel had the luxury of
bringing it back for that modest contingent.
Yet gazing beyond the show's conflict of good
vs. evil, HBO has enjoyed an unusually laudable
track record in the age-old war of good vs.
mediocre. It's against that measuring stick,
ultimately, that "Carnivale" comes