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Fluff And The Right Stuff
by Stephen Henkin, The World & I (March 2004)

If NBC's soon-to-depart Friends is like a Chinese meal, leaving you hungry a half hour later, HBO's new dramatic series Carnivale is a feast for the mind, eye and soul.

This year's television season offers two series at opposite ends of the sensibility spectrum, demonstrating different reasons why people watch television. One show is the soon-to-depart escapist NBC sitcom Friends. A comfortable, safe haven for the viewer who likes to be ensconced in warm, fuzzy story lines, it follows six characters who were originally adrift in New York in their twenties. Now in their thirties, they are still adrift, having somehow replaced the normal need to work and accomplish something in their lives with endless, angst-ridden cavorting and interminable small talk. A pessimist might say that the popularity of this series indicates this is what the majority of folks probably want to do-to focus only on fine-tuning (or flipflopping) our relationships away from the real cares of the world.

Diametrically opposed to the bland tastes of legions of comfort-zone viewers who have consistently sent Friends' ratings into the stratosphere are those nurtured by HBO's new apocalyptic drama, Carnivale, which challenges us with a world that is anything but safe. For Armageddon junkies, already hyped on heightened terror warnings and catastrophic daily headlines, it's all there: a storyline charged with omnipresent doomsday religious symbolism; the stark environment of Dust Bowl America; a haunting, ominous soundtrack. Even the opening credits say "end of the world."

Perhaps no possession, including the family auto, symbolizes the freedom of democracy in America more than the television set. Not only is it our own personal window to the world and a most convenient forum for public debate, it also is a living-room Coliseum where programs of widely varying sensibilities and backgrounds compete for our attention while slugging it out in the ratings war. Yet the power to chose the winner is left in the hands of the one who holds the remote control, and each night this individual is faced with the choice of going along with the herd or taking a chance on the new and untried.

Last fall, Newsweek devoted a cover story to Friends, opening with the alluring lead-in, "They won't be there for you-not much longer, anyway. Behind the scenes as Friends begins its final season, and great sitcoms become an endangered species."

You should wish! Friends, now in its (thank goodness) tenth and final season with just eighteen new episodes, will be around in syndicated reruns as long as water runs downhill. And despite Newsweek's lofty implication, the show is not a "great" sitcom; it is not even a very good sitcom. I Love Lucy, Mork and Mindy, Moonlighting, all In the Family, and even Married With Children (for those with thicker skin) are great sitcoms. Friends is something of a semicomic soap opera.

Bland, uninspiring eye candy, Friends picked up where Seinfeld left off in exploring new extremes of urban hedonism and self-gratifying behavior. For ten long seasons we have had to endure the constant flitting about and meaningless chatter of Rachel, Ross, Monica, Joey, Phoebe, and Chandler as they jumped from who knows who's bed to who knows who else's.

All of its stars were relative unknowns at the show's outset. Matt Le Blanc, for example, has said that he had $11 to his name when he auditioned for the series. These overhyped stars, who each started out making "just" $20,000 per episode, now command over one million dollars per half-hour show. This translates into $82,790,000 estimated earnings per lead character after ten years, not including syndication rights that may eclipse this amount over time. Building on their exposure not only in America but around the world, the six have attempted to parley their fame into film careers, serving to further enhance their charisma among their faithful fans.

Friends' loyalists are attracted to Lisa Kudrow's zaniness, Jennifer Aniston's sexiness, and Courteney Cox Arquette's coolness. These unchanging, sole traits have defined the female leads for the past decade, just as noncommittal aloofness alternating with spates of possessiveness in their interpersonal relationships have defined the male lead characters.

But aren't people supposed to be more complex than these underdrawn, two-dimensional personalities, whose time seems equally split between their New York apartments and their favorite Greenwich Village coffee shop? I defy anyone to name one redeeming social quality in the show, this influential window to American life seen in well over a hundred countries around the world.

Some may say, "What's wrong with that? We all need a break." But need it be quite so brainless, and need the characters we invite weekly (and with syndication, daily) into our living rooms be so unswervingly self-centered and morally clueless? It makes one wonder what has done more to spoil America's image around the world, Dirty Harry and Rambo films or Friends? At least with the Eastwood and Stallone shoot-'em-ups, there was the statement, albeit an overplayed one, of good overcoming evil. With Friends, nothing is overcome, especially not the characters' immediate desires. They seemingly have no future because they never resolve the present.

Sure, Friends has humor, though frequently bland, and charming, pretty people; but the show since its inception has steered clear of "hot" real-world issues like religion, race, politics, and the ethics of sexuality. This is a wise move if you are trying to attract a broad audience by not alienating anybody (almost), but the result has been a mediocre show that has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with our fondest daydreams. Thank goodness Friends' eagerly anticipated finale is this May, so that we may all claw our way back to the business of life.

Armageddon Awaits

While Friends is poised to enter rerun heaven, HBO's Carnivale demonstrates why cable TV, not the major networks, has become the choice hunting ground for more artistically discerning viewers. The much-talked-about show debuted last fall before HBO's largest audience ever for a new series-5.2 million viewers. It takes as the springboard for its story the fantastical abilities of the misfits, outsiders, eccentrics, and "freaks" in a traveling carnival in 1934 who drum up business in the godforsaken Dust Bowl. The story begins as they accept into their troupe a young man who turns out to have unusual gifts. The story has a second focus in the doings of a California cleric with a decidedly dark side and his odd sister. Series creator and executive producer Daniel Knauf has described the show as "The Grapes of Wrath meets David Lynch." Others see traces of Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, and various maestros of the surreal thrown into the mix as well. The intellectual and emotional appeal of this brooding Depression-era tale of the occult challenges the viewer to make sense of a most unconventional story line.

"What would you do if you woke up one morning and found out that you were the Savior? Or you're the Antichrist?" Knauf said when introducing the concept of the series to an interviewer. However, although the series makes use of familiar, highly resonant religious imagery, it has its own mythology that is quite distinct from any biblical source.

The opening words of the series' first show, uttered by the carnival's boss, diminutive Samson (played by Michael J. Anderson, the dwarf on Twin Peaks), set the stage:

Before the beginning, after the great war between heaven and hell, God created the earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called man. And to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then. Nobility. And unimaginable cruelty. So it was. Until the day that a false son exploded over Trinity and man forever traded away wonder for reason.

Knauf originally drafted Carnivale as a film screenplay in 1992. As the story was too long and complex for the film medium, however, he shelved the idea. Its production as a television series now rides the rising wave of fascination for things apocalyptic among viewers of television and film. A great fan of myth, Knauf describes the series as "an epic story of good versus evil, set in a carnival in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, between the two great wars." But nothing here is simply black-and-white. Ambiguity and mystery are integral to the show. One of the two characters central to the evolving plot, Ben Hawkins (played by Nick Stahl)-the destitute young fugitive the carnival picks up as a stagehand at the beginning-has the ability to foresee the future and to restore the dead to life, but in time he discovers that he can do this only if another life is taken; he must choose who is to die. A tormented soul, he suffers crippling nightmares, considerable confusion, and various temptations. The other central character, who never actually meets Ben and the carnival in the first season, is Brother justin Crowe (played by Clancy Brown, who was the villainous prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption). he seems at first to be a bleeding-heart Methodist minister, albeit with a penchant for fire-and-brimstone sermons. When darker urges to evil and power manifest themselves with growing ominousness, he begs another minister to kill him "before it is too late."

Surrounded by swirling sandstorms, drought, and pestilence, the carnies, like much of Depression-era America, become increasingly beleaguered by a growing evil in the world and a chronic despair at home. The twelve-part opening season, which ended last November, has created a hardcore following of Carnivale addicts, who share a common bond of trying to fathom the show's complex tapestry of science fiction, history, and religious allusion. Carnivale is not full of the fun and frivolity usually associated with a road show. The wandering carnival is a metaphor, a venue in which the forces of good and evil are divined by characters especially prepared for the supernatural task at hand. The viewer's appetite is whetted by this collection of world-weary freak-show characters-each of whom has the psychological numinousness of an archetype-who seemingly hold the future of humanity in their sweaty hands.

As the series evolves, so troubling are Ben's growing powers that he cannot sleep; when he does, he dreams of an unspeakable horror yet to come. Stahl steals many a scene through his convincing portrayal of someone completely at the mercy of unpredictable spiritual phenomena. Brother Justin, meanwhile, is coming into his own repertoire of spiritual powers. When he breaks into a church and preaches that sinners can be saved only by blood and fire, he demands to be baptized; the sign of the cross made with holy water on his forehead turns to blood. After his parish's children die in a fire that has engulfed his church (did he set the blaze?) Brother justin is forced to confront, yet also to savor, the growing menace he has become.

The carnival's characters bolster the growing sense of foreboding. Samson runs the show for Management, a seldom-seen but androgynously voiced entity of great authority and mystery who resides behind a veil in a wagon with a "Management: Do Not Enter" sign on the door. The ever-vigilant Samson, who runs the menagerie of misfits with a cool head, keeps the viewer constantly wondering about Management's identity. Is he (or she?) God, the Devil, or something else altogether?

Then there is Lodz (played by the fine actor Patrick Bauchau), a blind mentalist who can see others' dreams and through time, and for that reason knows that young Ben has special gifts. The carnival's mother figure, Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau, Escape From New York), the snake charmer, falls for Ben, who in turn resurrects her from the dead in the first-season finale. Other carnies add to the surreal environment, including a tarot reader who derives her particular gift by "channeling" her catatonic but seemingly all-knowing mother; a bearded lady who serves as Lodz's paramour; and a coterie of Siamese twins and other side show attractions, strippers, and carnival laborers of all shapes and descriptions.

With high production values, haunting music, and a Felliniesque mysteriousness, the show resembles the mesmerizing Twin Peaks. Knauf is aware, however, that Lynch's hypnotic mind-bender ran out of steam, finally derailing in what most viewers saw as a cop-out ending. Knauf stresses that he has thought out the basic plot for the entire series; the story has a clear internal logic and a finite end, with identifiable signpost developments along the way. How long it will take to tell the whole tale he does not really know; on American television, it depends on how well the show does in the ratings and how many times it is picked up for another season. he estimates that it could not last more than five or six seasons. Although small revelations in each installment drive the story forward, it might take a miracle to sustain interest that long, given the growing pile of unanswered questions that each installment leaves behind.

In terms of writing, directing, acting, and production values, the show is undoubtedly brilliant, and this stems from a wide variety of sources. Besides Knauf, writers come from backgrounds such as Northern Exposure (Henry Brom well), judging Amy (Nicole Yorkin), and Roswell (Tony Graphia). The show's talented staff of directors have worked on other heralded HBO projects such as The Sopranos (Jack Bender, Rodrigo Garcia), Six Feet Under (Garcia, John Patterson, Jeremy Podeswa), The Wire (Podeswa), and Sex and the City (Alison MacLean.)

Carnivale's music, composed by Jeff Beal, is complex, haunting, and otherworldy. "I think one thing that I've tried very hard to do is to create almost a three-dimensionality to the music," explains Beal. "I think it helps tell the story, because obviously the characters are that way, and the acting and so many other elements are on that level. It's not a one-dimensional show."

The show's philosophical underpinning is its most compelling quality. Knauf explains that Carnivale unfolds in what he calls "the last great age of magic." He curiously remarks that, "Once we as a species created and managed to harness the Bomb, that was the beginning of the Age of Reason. You could argue that, at that point, God sorta gave us the car keys and said, 'You're on your own.' But up until that moment, there was such a thing as magic."

Responding to the surge of viewers in the final weeks of its opening run, HBO has committed to a second season. "The fans have been so passionate," says Knauf. "I read virtually every web posting there is. The postings aren't, 'Hey dude, bitchin' episode.' We get people who feel like this is a big part of their lives. To me, that's insanely satisfying." He insists, "We're just gonna try to continue to blow minds, you know. And take people to places they've never been before."

If the past is any prediction of the future, Carnivale is going to lead viewers to some pretty strange places, indeed.