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Odd 'Carnivale' A Show That Begs For Consistency
by Mark Dawidziak, Plain Dealer - Cleveland (January 8, 2005)

The eccentric Depression-era drama begins its second season.

"Carnivale" served up some stunningly creepy and compelling moments during its first season. Consistency, though, was not part of its oddball game, so the murky Depression-era drama never quite rolled into the center ring reserved for Home Box Office's superstar attractions.

Ladies and gentlemen, please direct your attention to that center ring. That's where you'll find such brilliant dramas as "The Sopranos," "Deadwood," "Six Feet Under" and "The Wire." An HBO series has to be incredibly good to stand tall in this celebrated company, and "Carnivale" wasn't that good.

Still, the bar is set pretty sky-high at HBO, and programmers saw enough promise in "Carnivale" to give it a second year. Why not? HBO shows have a tendency to get better in their sophomore seasons.

If the first two episodes of the second season are any indication, however, "Carnivale" isn't going to improve much over its erratic rookie year. That doesn't mean it's a bad show. It means the writing and direction are uneven as ever, lurching clumsily from intriguing to annoying.

The typically moody second-season opener airs at 9 tonight, picking up the story of young Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), a fugitive taken in by a carnival traveling across Dust Bowl states in the 1930s. Shadowy messages, disturbing visions and eerie hints were peppered throughout the first season, giving "Carnivale" followers clues about the good-vs.-evil allegory behind the series.

What exactly is Ben's role in this apocalyptic battle gradually taking shape on the dusty horizon? And why has he been chosen to be on a collision course with radio evangelist Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), a preacher whose false face masks something truly horrific?

From the start, "Carnivale" has been a relentlessly weird combination of sensibilities. With its carny setting, its Dust Bowl grit and its bizarre imagery, the HBO series has played like a combination of Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes," John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and David Lynch's "Twin Peaks."

Its tone and eccentric nature certainly owe a great deal to "Twin Peaks." A familiar face from that 1990-91 ABC series, Michael Anderson, plays Samson, who runs the carnival for powers known only as Management.

The cast is never the problem in "Carnivale." Stahl, Brown and Anderson lead a strong team that includes Adrienne Barbeau as snake charmer Ruthie, Clea DuVall as tarot-card reader Sofie, John Carroll Lynch as prison inmate Varlyn Stroud, John Savage as Ben's ever-elusive father, Ralph Waite as the Rev. Balthus and Amy Madigan as Brother Justin's sister, Iris.

At its best, "Carnivale" creeps under your skin as an unsettling yet fascinating mix of mysticism, mystery and metaphor. At its plodding worst, the portentous stuff becomes pretentious, while the paranormal aspects slide uncomfortably close to self-parody.

Why hasn't "Carnivale" improved with age? It's largely because the show's many producers haven't found a way to blend the diverse influences into some kind of cohesive package.

You get the usual "Carnivale" quota of Biblical references and prophetic ramblings, but the ponderous and slow stretches might wear you down before the hard answers are given up by the writers. The "dark one," Samson tells us in Sunday's opening, chose to "live as a mortal," and, after World War I, "he fled across the ocean to an empire called America. . . . And so it was that the fate of mankind came to rest on the trembling shoulders of the most reluctant of saviors."

Did you get that? Or are you like a confused Ben in next week's episode, responding to news from Samson: "That don't make no sense."

If you're inclined to stick with "Carnivale," flaws and all, hope that the writers have a better answer than the one Samson gives Ben: "It don't have to."