Returns - Please Let There Be A Plot
by Andy Dehnart, MSNBC (January 6, 2005)
that the first season was merely a 'prologue'.
As we’ve come to expect from HBO’s
original series, "Carnivàle"
has an exceptional cast (Amy Madigan, Adrienne
Barbeau, Clea Duvall, Nick Stahl and Clancy
Brown to name just a few), strong characters,
and complex storylines. Set in the 1930s with
a carnival traveling through a country ravaged
by the depression, its dusty vistas are filmed
flawlessly and are as captivating to watch as
the characters who inhabit them.
Yet something was missing.
It certainly wasn't mystery
or fantasy that was absent during the series’
first season. "Carnivàle" is
less realistic and more fantastic than its HBO
siblings, but it is firmly grounded in both
an era and an aesthetic that makes even the
most absurd moments play realistically. Amid
the dirt, blowing sand, and abject poverty,
Sophie’s almost comatose, nearly immobile
mother (Diane Salinger) communicates telepathically
and telekinetically; Professor Lodz (Patrick
Bauchau) enters a person’s dreams by touch
alone; apocalyptic dreams rage in character's
heads; the god-like man known as Management
communicates from and never leaves a trailer
that appears to be empty; and the carnies visit
a town inhabited by dead miners who kill a teenage
girl in order to have a female companion.
The strong supporting
characters inhabit the series’ two parallel
storylines, which focus on two individuals whose
lives are inexplicably intertwined but who have
yet to physically meet.
Both have supernatural
powers: Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) is "the
one," an 18-year-old convict with god-like
powers to heal others and affect his surroundings;
Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) is a literally
self-flagellating, frequently rage-filled man
of the cloth who has visions and can see others’
It’s an obvious
dichotomy and an even more obvious turn to have
the minister be evil and the murderer be good.
But ultimately, it works, mostly because each
is convinced that they’re the opposite.
Ben rebels against his abilities while maintaining
a single facial expression; Brother Justin is
convinced he’s doing God’s work
and always appears as though he's acting as
a conduit for God while speaking to an enraptured
the characters speak in a dialogue that feels
authentic, even if that authenticity is a modern
interpretation. As Carnivàle manager
Samson, Michael J. Anderson gets the best dialogue,
dropping terrifically incomprehensible lines
such as, "C’mon children, we got
dust to shake" and "Damn straight.
We rollin’ box ears way too long. Grouch
bags empty. We don’t even got over-the-road
Let there be plot...
"The Sopranos" and even "Entourage"
and "Sex and the City," what the first
season of "Carnivàle" didn't
have was a linear storyline. The series stayed
interesting but by the end, never really managed
to get anywhere. "The Sopranos" certainly
moves in and out of storylines, but it’s
always moving forward. Instead of unfolding,
"Carnivàle" just kept folding
back onto itself, making us feel like we were
being blown around in a dust storm.
Yet it was still captivating.
Perhaps it’s revealing that this Emmy-award
winning series was nominated for and won technical
Emmys only. The strength of the production overshadowed
the weaknesses in the story, as it seemed like
the producers and writers didn't really know
what to do with this cast, characters, and set
once they'd assembled it.
More frustratingly, the
series’ complex, original mythology -
which borrows heavily from religion and the
reality of life in that era - has possibility
that never seemed realized. Its setting during
the Great Depression, between two world wars,
contains rich possibility, but ultimately that
was subjugated by the more fantastic elements.
But those, too, had possibility.
In the opening moments
of the first episode, Samson addressed viewers
directly, saying, "Before the beginning,
after the great war between heaven and hell,
God created the earth and gave dominion over
it to the crafty ape he called man. And to each
generation was born a creature of light and
a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed
by night in the ancient war between good and
evil. There was magic then, nobility, and unimaginable
cruelty. So it was. Until the day that a false
sun exploded over Trinity and man forever traded
away wonder for reason."
Whether that sets up
in a parallel universe or tries to ground it
in our era doesn’t matter as much as its
thrilling promise of something, anything. But
just like Samson’s monologue, the first
12 episodes turned out to be all setup and no
delivery. The battle between good and evil that
promos promised never occurred; the two main
characters never even met, except in dreams.
There were a lot of hints but not many solutions.
The revelations weren't all that revelatory,
and the biggest secrets remained uncovered.
Because of that, many moments felt gratuitous;
they weren't there to serve a larger story.
The murder of a girl who was the star of her
father’s strip show was less disturbing
than their family’s dynamics; the apparently
incestuous relationship between Brother Justin
and his sister Iris (Amy Madigan) was introduced
but offers nothing and even weakens the effects
of their unspoken bond as siblings.
Although the final episode
had Ben taking a life in order to save another,
even that felt like a letdown, because he'd
already used his powers before, and his decision
was apparent to us long before he was even aware
he'd have to make it. Management and every other
mystery remained an enigma. It’s not that
the series had to force a meeting between Brother
Justin and Ben, or give us the answers to all
our questions. But some forward movement was
The series’ creator,
Daniel Knauf, says in an HBO trailer that the
first season is really a "prologue."
For the second season, we can only hope "Carnivàle"
really gets on the road.