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Life's A Carnival, And So Is Death
by Noel Holston, Newsday (January 5, 2005)

HBO's myth series returns Sunday for another weird run.

At the Emmy ceremony in September, "Carnivale" took home awards in the drama series category for main title design, costuming, hair-styling, art direction and cinematography. All five trophies were well deserved. There was no series on television more visually arresting.

The unfortunate thing was, it desperately needed its mesmerizing optics to forestall viewers' boredom.

"Carnivale" is nothing if not ambitious. Against the backdrop of a ragtag carnival traversing the bust-dusted Heartland in the 1930s, it teased a looming battle between the forces of capital-letter Good and Evil, an Armageddon-esque clash worthy of Dante or Tolkien, that could determine the fate of the world.

A tall order, to be sure, but series creator and co-executive producer David Knauf assured entertainment writers that, unlike so many myth-based series that have failed to deliver on their promise or even to maintain a steady forward momentum, his was carefully thought out. "We know what we're going for," he said.

Maybe he did, and maybe he still does, but halfway through the series' initially intriguing first season, I started to feel like a child on a vacationcar ride: "Are we there yet?" So what if the scenery is great. At some point you just want to get somewhere.

I still had that road-to-nowhere feeling after watching the first two hours of the second, 12-episode cycle.

The first cycle ended on a cliffhanger note: Young Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), the chain-gang fugitive and miracle healer to whom the carnival folk gave refuge, strangled Prof. Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), the troupe's blind mentalist, to restore the life of Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), the snake handler. Ben had finally accepted the harsh reality that he can save a life only by taking one. Meanwhile, bum-legged ex-baseball player Jonesy (Tim DeKay) had rushed into a blazing trailer trying to save his true love, Sofie (Clea Duvall), from the fire that her paralyzed, psychic mother, Appolonia (Diane Salinger), had started telekinetically to stop her from leaving. (Boy, this must sound laughable in print.) And Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), who's eitherthe devil incarnate or his top advance man, was about to start recruiting his army of darkness by way of regular radio broadcasts.

Sunday's season opener and next week's hour advance the story ever so slightly. I won't spoil it for the series' remaining loyalists by revealing who, if anyone, dies. I'll just say that while the show remains a thing of harsh, weathered beauty, it also seems more pretentious than ever, its bloody religious symbols and mystical mumbo jumbo increasingly campy.

Carnivàle. HBO's supernatural drama about a Dust Bowl-era traveling carnival begins its second cycle of 12 episodes Sunday night at 9.