Sunday Night Stew
by Paul Brownfield, Los Angeles Times (January
The pairing of 'Carnivale' and a new show, 'Unscripted,'
is an acquired taste.
Lately, it seems, HBO is taking the whole "It's
not TV" thing too literally. Sunday nights
between 9 and 11, when the network has traditionally
scheduled some combination of its original series
-- "Sex and the City" into "The
Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" into
"Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- used to
make me want to cook Moroccan chicken, invite
some friends over and bellyache about relationships.
True, the network is at the mercy of its shows'
creators, who deliver episodes according to
their own creative schedules. But still, it
looks as if HBO has entered a kind of baroque
period as it tries to roll out new shows to
fill the gap. The latest Sunday night lineup,
for example, features season two of "Carnivale,"
its weird series about God, the occult and the
circus, followed by "Unscripted,"
a crafty new comedy about struggling actors
from a team including Steven Soderbergh and
George Clooney, at 10. These shows are esoteric
rather than smartly astride the mainstream;
they offer intellectual pleasures, not the thrill
of seeing how other people's relationships play
out. Watching them requires a certain work.
That's not to say that
the arrival of "Unscripted" is not
a significant thing. The show manages to find
a fresh, humane angle on show business striving,
doing for actors what "Sideways" did
recently for unpublished novelists approaching
middle age. As participant-observers of the
business, Soderbergh and Clooney have created
a show about Hollywood that gazes, for a change,
outward from the navel instead of the other
way. But as with "Curb Your Enthusiasm,"
you have to get it before you can begin to feel
it; like other HBO series of late ("Deadwood,"
"The Wire"), "Unscripted"
seems designed to win critical raves and a few
million viewers, followed by well-attended seminars
at the Museum of Television & Radio. That's
no mean feat, it's just a colder kind of buzz
than what prompted all those Sunday night "Sopranos"
is not just about hungry actors -- it's about
the near-vomit moments of public humiliation
these professionals confront on a daily basis.
The three main characters the show follows,
Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg and Jennifer Hall,
are played by Allen, Greenberg and Hall. They're
playing versions of themselves, in the way that
Michael Moore appears as Michael Moore in a
Michael Moore movie, or Larry David plays himself
in "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Adding
to the realism of their plight is the manner
in which the show is executed as comedy verite,
the dialogue improvised and scenes shot with
hand-held cameras, with real-life players (Brad
Pitt, Noah Wyle) doing cameos. Soderbergh and
Clooney tried at this before, with their quasi-documentary
HBO series "K Street," set in the
world of Washington politics. Here, they're
more in their element. The show is full of inside
jokes in which entertainment-industry players
-- agents, writers, directors -- poke fun at
their own personas.
Unlike every other show
that presents celebrity as something to be cravenly
envied, from "Entertainment Tonight"
to HBO's own "Entourage," "Unscripted"
illustrates how acting is actually work, lonely
and harsh. The series constantly puts its characters
into situations in which their psyches get stripped
bare, and the documentary look of the show adds
to this sense of emotional nakedness. Bryan,
dressed in leather, auditions for a movie called
"Ride the Wild Wind," only to get
laughed out of the audition room because the
project is a western. Jennifer gets work as
a stand-in on "The George Lopez Show"
but doesn't seem to understand that she's really
just supposed to stand there. And when Allen,
the most credited of the three (she's had roles
in "Emmanuelle in Space" and "Baywatch"),
seems to have landed a dream meeting with a
famous director, we watch her by degrees register
the ego-killing truth behind his interest.
Allen, more than the
other two, is playing someone you don't see
often on TV or in film -- a Pam Anderson with
acting chops, somebody caught between the bimbo
work that arrives steadily and the real parts
for which she is actually qualified but not
considered seriously. Her predicament is strangely
moving. She's trying to outrun the soft-porn
stuff in her past; she's aging out of the bathing
suits and into obscurity, and meanwhile she's
raising an 8-year-old kid alone, and how do
you turn down the $200,000 offer for the cover
But nobody here is a
slam-dunk talent, not Allen nor Greenberg nor
Hall. Clooney and Soderbergh are smart enough
not to martyr them, because for all they're
up against they do enjoy a certain advantage
-- they're white, and they're young, which gets
them through the door, at least.
"If you want to
be an actor," says their acting coach,
Goddard Fulton, "you want to be an actor
because it wakes you up at 2 in the morning."
He is played deliciously by Frank Langella,
alternately dispensing actorly advice ("Be
unpretty, be unpretty," he shouts at his
students during scenes) and bons mots about
the vagaries of the business. "The easy
stuff might get you rich," he tells them,
"but you will be rich and famous for a
while, and then you will be discarded, like
a used condom on the beach."
That's a happy metaphor
compared with the metaphors of "Carnivale,"
created by Daniel Knauf and loaded with knockout
art direction and cinematography. The show is
about a minister, Brother Justin (Clancy Brown),
who either is going mad or is possessed by the
devil, and a Dust Bowl refugee, Ben Hawkins
(Nick Stahl), who has ended up with a traveling
carnival making its way through the scorched
earth of Depression-era America. "Carnivale"
is bathed in an occult mythology that keeps
acquiring layers more than plot points, like
a truck whose clutch is jammed in a low gear.
You can try to join the
show in midstream, but good luck: Season two
begins the way the first one did, with a dwarf,
seen in close-up, addressing the camera. "On
the heels of the skirmish man foolishly called
the war to end all wars, the dark one sought
to elude his destiny, live as a mortal,"
he says. "So he fled across the ocean to
an empire called America."
Here's a hint: He's not
talking about Osama bin Laden. The dwarf is
Samson (Michael J. Anderson), the confidence
man and on-site manager of the carnival. That's
the show's nominal premise; in last season's
pilot, the carnies picked up Hawkins, whose
real powers are juxtaposed against the carnival's
dubious mystics -- the tarot card reader Sofie
(Clea Duvall) and the snake handler Ruthie (Adrienne
Barbeau). There's also a bearded lady, Siamese
twins and a family of exotic dancers, one of
whom was killed off last season -- strung up,
the word "harlot" carved into her
forehead -- in an episode called "Babylon."
That's the show's heavy
hand; you half expect the credits to list God
as a creative consultant. "Carnivale"
is beautiful to look at, but it drags, cutting
back and forth between Ben and the carnies and
Brother Justin's growing religious zealotry
in California; the narrative thrust is toward
some sort of Judgment Day meeting between the
two. Sunday night that happens -- I think, sort
of, in a vision.
Ben, who spent much of
the first season sleeping under a truck, resisting
the notion that he had certain responsibilities
as a God-like force of light, seems to be embracing
the role, or at least looking into it, after
several highly charged encounters with Management,
the name for the unseen figure who apparently
governs not only where the carnival goes but
also more existential matters, like how to head
off an impending apocalypse.
To watch "Carnivale"
is to feel you have purchased a moody Tom Waits
concept album, where he's banging on trash can
lids and mumbling about Satan into a megaphone.
I caught up with the
show by watching the first 12 episodes on DVD,
over two weeks, the show plunging me into a
deeper and deeper funk -- an engrossing funk,
best enjoyed alone.