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Sunday Seesaw: 'Carnivale' Is Up, 'Unscripted' Down
by Melanie McFarland, Seattle Post Intelligencer (January 7, 2005)

Whatever happened to the kid who called out the emperor for being naked in Hans Christian Andersen's tale? Was he rewarded by his parents, or spanked for stating the obvious and showing up the whole town?

A better question might be: Is he based on a real child and, if so, does he have any descendants? Because HBO could certainly use someone like him.

You know, give the guy (or girl) a job that would require each series to strive for a balance of originality, creativity and coherence as opposed to accentuating one of those over the others. Let that person make sure the network's products live up to its reputation.

Had this mythical being been on staff, HBO's Dust Bowl fantasy "Carnivale" may have been saved from its first season's needless meandering, and more of us would look forward to the second's premiere Sunday at 9 p.m.

Furthermore, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney would have a clue, after the creative quagmire that was "K Street," that substituting actors for politicians and calling it "Unscripted" wouldn't improve the concept all that much.

But as I said, this person is not in the premium channel's employ. Unfortunate, since that leaves us at the mercy of 10 more half-hours of pseudo-documentary self- indulgence, this time with Soderbergh and Clooney faking the funk in La Tinseltown Boheme.

Looking at Sunday chronologically allows us to start with brighter news, which is that "Carnivale's" second season opener gives us that missing direction that evaded the first. It was by no means a complete failure, though. "Carnivale" won a passionate following by presenting the kind of detailed mythology rarely seen on television.

Few would deny "Carnivale's" artistic execution; the cinematography could leave you gasping at times, and the sets were as impressive as they were desolate. The series was a brilliant achievement, aesthetically speaking. It was the plot progression that left us wishing for a tough, able editor.

Twelve episodes set up two story lines, placing the reluctant fugitive hero, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), in a broken-down carnival filled with grifters and whores, making his nemesis a false prophet named Brother Justin (Clancy Brown).

The writers, though overly enamored with intricacy, were particularly effective in laying out Justin and his sister Iris' (Amy Madigan) subtle descent into malice.

Early on, however, the plot's wheels sank into the muddy road of obsessive detail. Though rich characters like Sofie (Clea DuVall), the mournful tarot card reader, her lover Jonesy (Tim DeKay), Ruthie the snake lady (Adrienne Barbeau) and their leader, Samson (Michael J. Anderson), brought you back week to week, "Carnivale" could have lightened its load by a few side stories, granting it more forward movement. The finale's trite inferno cliffhanger, a soap-opera tactic that left us wondering who lived or died, crowned the season's slippage.

Sunday's premiere delineates the conflict ahead for Hawkins and Brother Justin, finally spelling out each man's quest: They must find Scudder, Hawkins' father and the linchpin of the entire prophecy. This riveting hour of television arrives more than a year too late - it should have been the first season's finale.

The second episode is really where this season kicks off, with the race to stop Armageddon under way and Justin's rise to power reaching to alarming expanses. Long-overdue spookiness finally - finally! - emerges at the end of that hour, with Justin taking his role into his flesh, so to speak, and recruiting a dangerous disciple.

Whatever problems you may have had with "Carnivale" last season, give it a pass for, let's say, five episodes. That's more than enough time to figure out if the magic has returned.

To ask the same of "Unscripted," which has two episodes following at 10, is too much.

"Unscripted" gives us the fictionalized true tales of three real struggling actors - Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg and Jennifer Hall - who play an imitation of themselves while improvising their dialogue. As they fumble through cold readings and worthless roles on real series, they mix with real stars (appearing in cameos throughout the series) and miserably flaunt every tiny break.

(A quick search of their names at reveals that they actually were in some of the shows "Unscripted" mentions. Then again, you'd really have to care to engage in that level of research.)

When they're not getting shot down or ruing the choices they've made, they're in class at the Tamarind Theater, where teacher and mentor Goddard Fulton (Frank Langella) alternately berates their abilities and delivers flowery lectures about the industry's harsh realities. That is, when he's not sleeping with students on the sly.

"The easy stuff might get you rich," he says, enunciating each syllable for maximum impression. "But you'll be famous for a while and then you will be discarded, like a used condom on a beach."

Aside from the pretentious air, there's a Sisyphean gloom hanging over "Unscripted." For every bright spot, their lives stumble backward into disappointment with each episode, and instead of rooting for their persistence, it makes you wish these kids would pack it in already.

Allen's the exception. You quickly grow feelings for the actress, who is haunted by her starring role in the "Emmanuelle" soft-core porn series. In class, she displays the beginnings of depth and range that her peers can't accomplish, and yet she's typecast as "lesbian porn star" and "busty girl in the elevator." Just when Allen thinks she's finally gotten the call that will change her fortunes, she finds out fate has favored not her but her tiny son.

Tremendous stories abound on the potholed path to stardom, and in the end, it could turn out that Soderbergh and Clooney have woven a decent tale here. But after viewing a few episodes, we are sad to say we still can't quite see it.