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Something Cryptic This Way Comes
by Pam Casellas, The West Australian - Perth (December 15, 2004)

If, after the first half-hour of the ABC's summer highlight Carnivale, you find yourself deeply confused, take heart: according to one of its stars, Clancy Brown, you will have understood more than you realise.

As the six episodes unfold, all will become clear.

Brown plays a character called Brother Justin Crowe, a preacher, in this dense and swirling production which won five Emmys - all of them in creative categories and none for simple accessibility - and is at times breathtaking in its beauty.

Set in dirt poor America of the 1930s, it follows a travelling carnival, the carnie, and its people, particularly a young man called Ben and Brown's evangelical Brother Justin.

Brown says he found the production mesmerising. Quite unlike anything he had done before. "And for it to be done on television, where everything usually fits a formula, is amazing," he said by car phone from Los Angeles.

"It's a beautiful production, gorgeous. Certainly it challenges people but the result is worth it.

"As you watch it, the significance of the events is never revealed. That happens later."

Carnivale is a classic battle of good against evil. Hero Ben is just a lad whose family is defeated by the adversity of life in the Dust Bowl. He is on his own, having just buried his mother when the carnie comes into his life.

The wonderful melange of characters is at first bewildering to him - Samson the dwarf, the little person, who runs the shown with deceptive cunning and guile, Lodz the blind man, the strong man Gabriel and his "barker" mother Ruthie, Lila, the bearded lady, Gecko the lizard man and Sofie, the daughter of Apollonia, the tarot reader who is comatose and speaks through her daughter.

Ben resists them, as he resists evidence he has powers that set him apart, powers which have destined him to follow a certain path. Across the country, in California, Brother Justin is facing a similar dilemma as he is forced to recognise his own difference.

Brown says he was captivated by the script from the moment he saw it. "Scripts like this are notable and historic," he said. "They take you away from your comfort zone. You have to find new and different ways in which to work.

"I was always confident, particularly after seeing the rushes, that the audience would grasp it."

There was a great attraction about playing Brother Justin. "He had long had inklings of his greatness," Brown said. But as a preacher he had been trained to be humble. Accepting that he was not, and learning to use that power, was a conflict Brown enjoyed.

For Brown, whose eclectic curriculum vitae includes the multi-Oscar winning The Shawshank Redemption, Pet Cemetery and Superman, rural America was familiar territory. He was born and raised in small-town Ohio, where his family still live and run the local newspaper.

Carnivale comes from the American HBO network, regarded as the home of very different television. It produced Angels in America, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, all examples of breaking the mould that television has become.

But this one is something else. Creator Daniel Knauf, who admits to being a fan both of Tolkien and Dickens, loves the thought of an epic. The first draft of Carnivale was a screenplay because he thought there was no way this epic could be confined to a small screen.

And anyway, how could he have pitched such a series to a producer? "I guess the flip answer is that it is The Grapes of Wrath meets David Lynch." Certainly there is a Twin Peak-ish element there.

He'd always been fascinated by the travelling carnivals. "I love the fact that these things come into every town and it's sort of a universal experience," Brown said. "And there's a danger to it and a romantic quality about it, and a seediness that always thrilled me.

"I've always been a fan of epic storytelling and the whole idea of mythologising something. This is a young country, so about the only thing we've mythologised is the West. The idea of digging into our history and using it as a template to do some epic storytelling seemed like a good idea."

There is no doubt this is an epic tale and, as Clancy Brown promises, it does become clearer as each episode unfolds. There is no doubt either that it is a brilliant, multi-layered and visually quite stunning production full of characters so deftly drawn they leap from the screen.

There is no doubt that it is daunting. But the best advice is Brown's - let it wash over you, don't try to understand every moment. Let young Ben, played so beautifully by Nick Stahl, draw you into the carnie as he is drawn into it, this truly mysterious, vaguely threatening world which welcomes outsiders with deep suspicion and even resentment.

Samson is played by Michael J. Anderson, already a veteran of Twin Peaks and the more recent Mulholland Drive. Quirkily, his life before falling into the movies was as a NASA computer programmer and member of the Challenger ground crew.

His Samson is a fraud and a conman, the silver-tongued spruiker who can separate a punter from his money in a flash. He's seen strange things, has Samson, but mostly he's seen a lot of life.

The period of Carnivale was an active one for prophets of good and evil. The world seemed to be falling apart, with dust and pestilence at every turn. And while there are pockets of emerging technology - the radio has arrived - the world still turns on superstition and fable.

That is what is at the heart of Carnivale, wrapped gloriously in this colourful tale both of well-worn magic acts and the inexplicable, the battle to survive in this dusty world and to make sense of that world.

Just don't feel you have to understand every word just yet.