'Carnivale' A Show That Begs For Consistency
by Mark Dawidziak, Plain Dealer - Cleveland
(January 8, 2005)
The eccentric Depression-era drama begins its
"Carnivale" served up some stunningly
creepy and compelling moments during its first
season. Consistency, though, was not part of
its oddball game, so the murky Depression-era
drama never quite rolled into the center ring
reserved for Home Box Office's superstar attractions.
Ladies and gentlemen,
please direct your attention to that center
ring. That's where you'll find such brilliant
dramas as "The Sopranos," "Deadwood,"
"Six Feet Under" and "The Wire."
An HBO series has to be incredibly good to stand
tall in this celebrated company, and "Carnivale"
wasn't that good.
Still, the bar is set
pretty sky-high at HBO, and programmers saw
enough promise in "Carnivale" to give
it a second year. Why not? HBO shows have a
tendency to get better in their sophomore seasons.
If the first two episodes
of the second season are any indication, however,
"Carnivale" isn't going to improve
much over its erratic rookie year. That doesn't
mean it's a bad show. It means the writing and
direction are uneven as ever, lurching clumsily
from intriguing to annoying.
The typically moody second-season
opener airs at 9 tonight, picking up the story
of young Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), a fugitive
taken in by a carnival traveling across Dust
Bowl states in the 1930s. Shadowy messages,
disturbing visions and eerie hints were peppered
throughout the first season, giving "Carnivale"
followers clues about the good-vs.-evil allegory
behind the series.
What exactly is Ben's
role in this apocalyptic battle gradually taking
shape on the dusty horizon? And why has he been
chosen to be on a collision course with radio
evangelist Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), a
preacher whose false face masks something truly
From the start, "Carnivale"
has been a relentlessly weird combination of
sensibilities. With its carny setting, its Dust
Bowl grit and its bizarre imagery, the HBO series
has played like a combination of Ray Bradbury's
"Something Wicked This Way Comes,"
John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"
and David Lynch's "Twin Peaks."
Its tone and eccentric
nature certainly owe a great deal to "Twin
Peaks." A familiar face from that 1990-91
ABC series, Michael Anderson, plays Samson,
who runs the carnival for powers known only
The cast is never the
problem in "Carnivale." Stahl, Brown
and Anderson lead a strong team that includes
Adrienne Barbeau as snake charmer Ruthie, Clea
DuVall as tarot-card reader Sofie, John Carroll
Lynch as prison inmate Varlyn Stroud, John Savage
as Ben's ever-elusive father, Ralph Waite as
the Rev. Balthus and Amy Madigan as Brother
Justin's sister, Iris.
At its best, "Carnivale"
creeps under your skin as an unsettling yet
fascinating mix of mysticism, mystery and metaphor.
At its plodding worst, the portentous stuff
becomes pretentious, while the paranormal aspects
slide uncomfortably close to self-parody.
Why hasn't "Carnivale"
improved with age? It's largely because the
show's many producers haven't found a way to
blend the diverse influences into some kind
of cohesive package.
You get the usual "Carnivale"
quota of Biblical references and prophetic ramblings,
but the ponderous and slow stretches might wear
you down before the hard answers are given up
by the writers. The "dark one," Samson
tells us in Sunday's opening, chose to "live
as a mortal," and, after World War I, "he
fled across the ocean to an empire called America.
. . . And so it was that the fate of mankind
came to rest on the trembling shoulders of the
most reluctant of saviors."
Did you get that? Or
are you like a confused Ben in next week's episode,
responding to news from Samson: "That don't
make no sense."
If you're inclined to
stick with "Carnivale," flaws and
all, hope that the writers have a better answer
than the one Samson gives Ben: "It don't