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HBO's Sunday Night Stew
by Paul Brownfield, Los Angeles Times (January 7, 2005)

The pairing of 'Carnivale' and a new show, 'Unscripted,' is an acquired taste.

Lately, it seems, HBO is taking the whole "It's not TV" thing too literally. Sunday nights between 9 and 11, when the network has traditionally scheduled some combination of its original series -- "Sex and the City" into "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" into "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- used to make me want to cook Moroccan chicken, invite some friends over and bellyache about relationships. True, the network is at the mercy of its shows' creators, who deliver episodes according to their own creative schedules. But still, it looks as if HBO has entered a kind of baroque period as it tries to roll out new shows to fill the gap. The latest Sunday night lineup, for example, features season two of "Carnivale," its weird series about God, the occult and the circus, followed by "Unscripted," a crafty new comedy about struggling actors from a team including Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, at 10. These shows are esoteric rather than smartly astride the mainstream; they offer intellectual pleasures, not the thrill of seeing how other people's relationships play out. Watching them requires a certain work.

That's not to say that the arrival of "Unscripted" is not a significant thing. The show manages to find a fresh, humane angle on show business striving, doing for actors what "Sideways" did recently for unpublished novelists approaching middle age. As participant-observers of the business, Soderbergh and Clooney have created a show about Hollywood that gazes, for a change, outward from the navel instead of the other way. But as with "Curb Your Enthusiasm," you have to get it before you can begin to feel it; like other HBO series of late ("Deadwood," "The Wire"), "Unscripted" seems designed to win critical raves and a few million viewers, followed by well-attended seminars at the Museum of Television & Radio. That's no mean feat, it's just a colder kind of buzz than what prompted all those Sunday night "Sopranos" potluck dinners.

"Unscripted" is not just about hungry actors -- it's about the near-vomit moments of public humiliation these professionals confront on a daily basis. The three main characters the show follows, Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg and Jennifer Hall, are played by Allen, Greenberg and Hall. They're playing versions of themselves, in the way that Michael Moore appears as Michael Moore in a Michael Moore movie, or Larry David plays himself in "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Adding to the realism of their plight is the manner in which the show is executed as comedy verite, the dialogue improvised and scenes shot with hand-held cameras, with real-life players (Brad Pitt, Noah Wyle) doing cameos. Soderbergh and Clooney tried at this before, with their quasi-documentary HBO series "K Street," set in the world of Washington politics. Here, they're more in their element. The show is full of inside jokes in which entertainment-industry players -- agents, writers, directors -- poke fun at their own personas.

Unlike every other show that presents celebrity as something to be cravenly envied, from "Entertainment Tonight" to HBO's own "Entourage," "Unscripted" illustrates how acting is actually work, lonely and harsh. The series constantly puts its characters into situations in which their psyches get stripped bare, and the documentary look of the show adds to this sense of emotional nakedness. Bryan, dressed in leather, auditions for a movie called "Ride the Wild Wind," only to get laughed out of the audition room because the project is a western. Jennifer gets work as a stand-in on "The George Lopez Show" but doesn't seem to understand that she's really just supposed to stand there. And when Allen, the most credited of the three (she's had roles in "Emmanuelle in Space" and "Baywatch"), seems to have landed a dream meeting with a famous director, we watch her by degrees register the ego-killing truth behind his interest.

Allen, more than the other two, is playing someone you don't see often on TV or in film -- a Pam Anderson with acting chops, somebody caught between the bimbo work that arrives steadily and the real parts for which she is actually qualified but not considered seriously. Her predicament is strangely moving. She's trying to outrun the soft-porn stuff in her past; she's aging out of the bathing suits and into obscurity, and meanwhile she's raising an 8-year-old kid alone, and how do you turn down the $200,000 offer for the cover of Playboy?

But nobody here is a slam-dunk talent, not Allen nor Greenberg nor Hall. Clooney and Soderbergh are smart enough not to martyr them, because for all they're up against they do enjoy a certain advantage -- they're white, and they're young, which gets them through the door, at least.

"If you want to be an actor," says their acting coach, Goddard Fulton, "you want to be an actor because it wakes you up at 2 in the morning." He is played deliciously by Frank Langella, alternately dispensing actorly advice ("Be unpretty, be unpretty," he shouts at his students during scenes) and bons mots about the vagaries of the business. "The easy stuff might get you rich," he tells them, "but you will be rich and famous for a while, and then you will be discarded, like a used condom on the beach."

That's a happy metaphor compared with the metaphors of "Carnivale," created by Daniel Knauf and loaded with knockout art direction and cinematography. The show is about a minister, Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), who either is going mad or is possessed by the devil, and a Dust Bowl refugee, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), who has ended up with a traveling carnival making its way through the scorched earth of Depression-era America. "Carnivale" is bathed in an occult mythology that keeps acquiring layers more than plot points, like a truck whose clutch is jammed in a low gear.

You can try to join the show in midstream, but good luck: Season two begins the way the first one did, with a dwarf, seen in close-up, addressing the camera. "On the heels of the skirmish man foolishly called the war to end all wars, the dark one sought to elude his destiny, live as a mortal," he says. "So he fled across the ocean to an empire called America."

Here's a hint: He's not talking about Osama bin Laden. The dwarf is Samson (Michael J. Anderson), the confidence man and on-site manager of the carnival. That's the show's nominal premise; in last season's pilot, the carnies picked up Hawkins, whose real powers are juxtaposed against the carnival's dubious mystics -- the tarot card reader Sofie (Clea Duvall) and the snake handler Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau). There's also a bearded lady, Siamese twins and a family of exotic dancers, one of whom was killed off last season -- strung up, the word "harlot" carved into her forehead -- in an episode called "Babylon."

That's the show's heavy hand; you half expect the credits to list God as a creative consultant. "Carnivale" is beautiful to look at, but it drags, cutting back and forth between Ben and the carnies and Brother Justin's growing religious zealotry in California; the narrative thrust is toward some sort of Judgment Day meeting between the two. Sunday night that happens -- I think, sort of, in a vision.

Ben, who spent much of the first season sleeping under a truck, resisting the notion that he had certain responsibilities as a God-like force of light, seems to be embracing the role, or at least looking into it, after several highly charged encounters with Management, the name for the unseen figure who apparently governs not only where the carnival goes but also more existential matters, like how to head off an impending apocalypse.

To watch "Carnivale" is to feel you have purchased a moody Tom Waits concept album, where he's banging on trash can lids and mumbling about Satan into a megaphone.

I caught up with the show by watching the first 12 episodes on DVD, over two weeks, the show plunging me into a deeper and deeper funk -- an engrossing funk, best enjoyed alone.