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Riddle Of The Freak Show
by Kreangsak Suwanpantakul, The Nation - Thailand (October 8, 2004)

HBO's Carnivale comes to Asian television screens this Sunday after a years run in the West, where theyre still trying to figure it out

You need more than time to watch HBOs new television series Carnivale. You need patience.

Unlike other HBO offerings like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, the individual episodes of Carnivale, while intriguing, dont stand alone.

To enjoy the freak show, audiences are required to stay tuned throughout its 12 episodes, but a number of critics in the US have blasted its crawling pace.

Ive now watched six count em, six episodes and still I dont know what the hell is going on, Linda Stasi complained in the New York Post.

Premiering across Asia on Sunday after a year on Western TV screens, Carnivale follows a freak show troupe as it moves from town to town during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The Bearded Lady, teen Siamese twins and catatonic fortune-teller have led relatively straightforward lives until the carnies pick up a quiet 18-year-old named Ben Hawkins (played by Nick Stahl from Terminator 3), who conceals his gift of healing powers and is often haunted by strange and traumatic dreams.

In HBOs promotional ads, his touch gets a paralysed girl on her feet. Other strange occurrences ensue, then Hawkins meets Brother Justin (Clancy Brown of The Shawshank Redemption), a devout preacher who believes God is speaking to him or is it some other entity'

Created by Daniel Knauf, whose film projects have been shelved as too damn weird, Carnivale reaped five Emmys this year.

The show, hosted by a mysterious boss whom the carnies call the management, is ostensibly about good versus evil. But dont count on being told whos the bad guy and whos the good guy.

Although he acknowledges he wont tell the whole story in the first season, Knauf knows where its going. He says it will take at least three seasons but not more than six to conclude the freak show.

Several Southeast Asia journalists tried to get the full story out of Knauf and Brown. They told us only that they wouldnt want to be killjoys.

Would it be fair to say Carnivale is somehow like X-Men set in the 30s'

Knauf: I didnt think of the X-Men. I thought of [things like] Todd Brownings movie Freak and epics from Dickens to Star Wars fell into brew.

Stephen Kings books, JRR Tolkien and a lot of literary references stuck with me from when I was young, and I always loved the carnival.

Im going to start telling people I was thinking of the X-Men [laughs]. Even Harry Potter, believe it or not.

What kind of message are you trying to send'

I subscribe to the belief that if you want to send a message, call Western Union [laughs]. Im not a big fan of sending messages. I just want to tell a good story.

Has anything out of ordinary happened to you during production'

Brown: No, I havent got that yet. People do recognise you, but because youre a bad guy, they dont bother you. This guy, its not clear that hes a bad guy, so a lot more people bother me, but nothing weird has happened.

Whats the strangest response youve had from the audience'

Knauf: God, theres been a lot. They did anagrams based on the names of each character. The pilot is titled Milfay, and if you rearrange the letters, it spells family. And the truth is when we did Milfay, we looked at a period map at the time and I arbitrarily picked Milfay.

Id love to say Im really smart, but it was a complete accident and once it happened, people started coming up with a wilder anagram with all these weird mysterious meanings. That kind of freaked me out a little bit.

Whos the management'

Find out in season two. Youll find out many things in season two.

By casting actors like Nick Stahl who havent been hyped by the media, do you think it helps people identify with the characters more'

Absolutely. I want faces to look a little dim. Im not a big fan when everybody is underwear-model pretty. I want them to look like the period.

Whats the meaning of Carnivale with an e'

Its actually a stab at irony. This is a really crappy little carnival and theyre moving to all these crappy little towns.

They just have the spunk to call themselves Carnivale, like theyre fresh from a tour of the continent.

Its basically a European affectation that they put on. It was kind of funny given the circumstances.

Brother Justin believes God speaks to him. Does God speak to you when youre writing'

Theres a word for people like that and that word is crazy [laughs]. No, God did not tell me to write the show, he told me not to [laughs].

Are you religious in real life'

Brown: I was raised in a small town. I went to the church just like Brother Justin. I dont proselytise or scream during the hour, or try to convince anybody of anything else. I just appreciate the simple beauty of it all.

What can you relate to in your character'

The struggle with your place in life, the small, little things. Theres a big disconnect between his public and private persona.

He tries to reconcile both of them, but he cant because he has a certain position in the community and certain feelings about justice and equality, but then he also has these very primal urges and desires and wants. You know, human stuff.

Does your background in theatre help in this religious role'

Yes, the only thing I dont do is my funny cartoon voices. [Brown has voiced Superman, Spider-Man and Sponge Bob Squarepants.]

Will Asian people with little background in Christianity understand the show, given its Christian undertones'

Knauf: I dont know. Im very interested to see that. But I do think the human condition involves bad and good people thats a universal aspect of the story.

Brown: Boy, Im dying to see what Asia makes of it!