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A Carnival Returns
by Nancy deWolf Smith, Wall Street Journal (January 7, 2005)

HBO rejigs its Sunday night lineup this week with the second-season premiere of the Depression-era series "Carnivale" and the debut of "Unscripted," a reality-style show about Hollywood wannabes. "Carnivale" is a drama and "Unscripted" is a spoof. Watching them, you sometimes wish the reverse were true.

"Carnivale" (9-10 p.m. EST) won well-deserved Emmys last year for costumes and art direction. Set among the denizens of a grubby carney as it lumbers through dust-bowl America in the 1930s, the show oozes atmosphere. You can feel the heat, taste the dust and smell the sweat as the sideshow performers drag through their tired routines before an even-more downtrodden audience.

Adding to the gloom is an apocalyptic plot revolving around the strange powers and visions of an 18-year-old carney worker, Ben (Nick Stahl). By this season, we know that Ben is destined to do final battle with Evil, as represented in the person of Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), an evangelist. What Ben represents is not entirely clear. He gets cryptic messages from a growly voice that emanates from behind a curtain in a carnival trailer, insinuating that Ben is destined to save the world. But nobody in this show and its huge cast, anchored by the diminutive carnival manager Samson (Michael J. Anderson), ever gives or gets a straight answer.

As the season opens, the carnies dig through the smoldering ruins of a fire that killed a catatonic but accurate fortuneteller and helped conceal the murder of a blind consort of the bearded lady. Ben tries to learn more about his father, Scudder, who may hold the key to his destiny. Brother Justin, meanwhile, preaches on the radio, recruits a prison inmate to do his dastardly bidding, and is excruciated by a beautiful Chinese tattoo artist.

For a show this ponderous, "Carnivale" hops from scene to scene very fast. But that's its only concession to contemporary viewing tastes, accustomed to cheap thrills. It's so heavy, in fact, that someone could make a hilarious parody of it. Until then, we can only trust that the writers have a clear vision, and that when the end comes, it will be full of sound and fury signifying something.