Seesaw: 'Carnivale' Is Up, 'Unscripted' Down
by Melanie McFarland, Seattle Post Intelligencer
(January 7, 2005)
Whatever happened to the kid who called out
the emperor for being naked in Hans Christian
Andersen's tale? Was he rewarded by his parents,
or spanked for stating the obvious and showing
up the whole town?
A better question might
be: Is he based on a real child and, if so,
does he have any descendants? Because HBO could
certainly use someone like him.
You know, give the guy
(or girl) a job that would require each series
to strive for a balance of originality, creativity
and coherence as opposed to accentuating one
of those over the others. Let that person make
sure the network's products live up to its reputation.
Had this mythical being
been on staff, HBO's Dust Bowl fantasy "Carnivale"
may have been saved from its first season's
needless meandering, and more of us would look
forward to the second's premiere Sunday at 9
Furthermore, Steven Soderbergh
and George Clooney would have a clue, after
the creative quagmire that was "K Street,"
that substituting actors for politicians and
calling it "Unscripted" wouldn't improve
the concept all that much.
But as I said, this person
is not in the premium channel's employ. Unfortunate,
since that leaves us at the mercy of 10 more
half-hours of pseudo-documentary self- indulgence,
this time with Soderbergh and Clooney faking
the funk in La Tinseltown Boheme.
Looking at Sunday chronologically
allows us to start with brighter news, which
is that "Carnivale's" second season
opener gives us that missing direction that
evaded the first. It was by no means a complete
failure, though. "Carnivale" won a
passionate following by presenting the kind
of detailed mythology rarely seen on television.
Few would deny "Carnivale's"
artistic execution; the cinematography could
leave you gasping at times, and the sets were
as impressive as they were desolate. The series
was a brilliant achievement, aesthetically speaking.
It was the plot progression that left us wishing
for a tough, able editor.
Twelve episodes set up
two story lines, placing the reluctant fugitive
hero, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), in a broken-down
carnival filled with grifters and whores, making
his nemesis a false prophet named Brother Justin
The writers, though overly
enamored with intricacy, were particularly effective
in laying out Justin and his sister Iris' (Amy
Madigan) subtle descent into malice.
Early on, however, the
plot's wheels sank into the muddy road of obsessive
detail. Though rich characters like Sofie (Clea
DuVall), the mournful tarot card reader, her
lover Jonesy (Tim DeKay), Ruthie the snake lady
(Adrienne Barbeau) and their leader, Samson
(Michael J. Anderson), brought you back week
to week, "Carnivale" could have lightened
its load by a few side stories, granting it
more forward movement. The finale's trite inferno
cliffhanger, a soap-opera tactic that left us
wondering who lived or died, crowned the season's
Sunday's premiere delineates
the conflict ahead for Hawkins and Brother Justin,
finally spelling out each man's quest: They
must find Scudder, Hawkins' father and the linchpin
of the entire prophecy. This riveting hour of
television arrives more than a year too late
- it should have been the first season's finale.
The second episode is
really where this season kicks off, with the
race to stop Armageddon under way and Justin's
rise to power reaching to alarming expanses.
Long-overdue spookiness finally - finally! -
emerges at the end of that hour, with Justin
taking his role into his flesh, so to speak,
and recruiting a dangerous disciple.
Whatever problems you
may have had with "Carnivale" last
season, give it a pass for, let's say, five
episodes. That's more than enough time to figure
out if the magic has returned.
To ask the same of "Unscripted,"
which has two episodes following at 10, is too
gives us the fictionalized true tales of three
real struggling actors - Krista Allen, Bryan
Greenberg and Jennifer Hall - who play an imitation
of themselves while improvising their dialogue.
As they fumble through cold readings and worthless
roles on real series, they mix with real stars
(appearing in cameos throughout the series)
and miserably flaunt every tiny break.
(A quick search of their
names at imdb.com reveals that they actually
were in some of the shows "Unscripted"
mentions. Then again, you'd really have to care
to engage in that level of research.)
When they're not getting
shot down or ruing the choices they've made,
they're in class at the Tamarind Theater, where
teacher and mentor Goddard Fulton (Frank Langella)
alternately berates their abilities and delivers
flowery lectures about the industry's harsh
realities. That is, when he's not sleeping with
students on the sly.
"The easy stuff
might get you rich," he says, enunciating
each syllable for maximum impression. "But
you'll be famous for a while and then you will
be discarded, like a used condom on a beach."
Aside from the pretentious
air, there's a Sisyphean gloom hanging over
"Unscripted." For every bright spot,
their lives stumble backward into disappointment
with each episode, and instead of rooting for
their persistence, it makes you wish these kids
would pack it in already.
Allen's the exception.
You quickly grow feelings for the actress, who
is haunted by her starring role in the "Emmanuelle"
soft-core porn series. In class, she displays
the beginnings of depth and range that her peers
can't accomplish, and yet she's typecast as
"lesbian porn star" and "busty
girl in the elevator." Just when Allen
thinks she's finally gotten the call that will
change her fortunes, she finds out fate has
favored not her but her tiny son.
Tremendous stories abound
on the potholed path to stardom, and in the
end, it could turn out that Soderbergh and Clooney
have woven a decent tale here. But after viewing
a few episodes, we are sad to say we still can't
quite see it.