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All The Fun Of An Alternative Fair
by Erica Thompson, Courier Mail - Queensland, Australia (December 23, 2004)

Carnivale is not a conventional television series, writes Erica Thompson.

Clancy Brown has a helpful tip for watching the ABC's epic new drama series Carnivale.

"You gotta watch it with two eyeballs, not one eyeball," he says.

"It's not a show that lends itself to stereotypes and to the usual language of television."

With its combination of circus freaks, magic and evangelism, Carnivale is certainly not standard Sunday night viewing.

Set during America's dust bowl era, the Emmy Award-winning series has been described as Grapes of Wrath meets Twin Peaks.

The show follows the dual stories of 18-year-old fugitive Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), who is picked up by a 1930s travelling carnival, and that of charistmatic preacher Brother Justin (Brown).

Both men share strange apocalyptic dreams and appear to have supernatural powers.

While the nature of their connection is unclear, creator Daniel Knauf has hinted at an impending battle between good and evil.

Produced by HBO, the same cable network behind The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, Brown calls Carnivale "alternative television".

"I got a script and read it and was astounded by it and thought this is either going to work in a way that no TV has ever worked or it's going to flop terribly," he says.

"Fortunately, it exceeded expectations and it's a beautiful, beautiful show. I love the whole iconoclastic feel of it."

Traditionally, the 1.95m actor has landed the latter role in projects about "good and evil".

Remember the sadistic prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption?

The sword-wielding barbarian in Highlander?

The 45-year-old even voices Superman's nemesis Lex Luthor in the animated series.

One cannot help but wonder if Brother Justin also turns out to be the bad guy.

"Ooooh, I don't know," Brown says. "I don't think it will be very clear right away.

"The story itself is a bit more complex than just black and white and good and evil. It really has to do with the nature of both.

"(Justin) is a very petulant character, sort of overly dramatic and trying to make sense of things. He's not at all at ease with what he suspects to be true, which is that he is growing up."

IT IS demanding television, but Brown says the pay-off is worth it.

"There's nothing obvious about this show," he says. "There's not a banner hung on the clues and exposition, but you will realise later what is important if you keep watching."

Born in Ohio, Brown is the son of a former congressman and spent much of his childhood living in Washington D.C. He won a track scholarship to a US university, but ended up graduating with a degree in speech.

"My parents thought the same thing I did. He'll try (acting) for a few years and get tired and come back and make a living in a sensible way. They're still waiting for that and so am I," he laughs.

"I feel like I'm at the circus without paying and nobody knows I'm here."

Carnivale, ABC, Sundays 8.30pm