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Dark Carnivale

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Wow. Let’s summarize.

Doofy-Dust-Bowl-Boy can heal the sick by laying on hands. That means he is The One. (Every story has to have The One. I missed the memo announcing that as a required element of all fiction, which may explain my book royalties. The One is the new MacGuffin.) We know this because Psychic-Psychotic-Momma-In-A-Coma wakes up to tell him so, then immediately goes all vegetable again.

Trollops come in various ages, sizes, and marital statuses. Size Extra-Large, aging and married, favors wet t-shirts and a Lame Carnie in her bed. Size Large, daughter of Extra-Large, is lynched and currently experiencing a life with ghosts in the bush. Size small, also daughter of Extra-Large, switched to the other team and opted for a roll with an odd but intriguing looking Tarot card reader, who happens to be the daughter and conduit of Psychic-Coma-Momma. Odd-But-Intriguing-Looking-Daughter switched to the other team only to get even with the above mentioned Lame Carnie who was dallying with Extra-Large, Size-Small’s mama, which wouldn’t have happened to begin with if Extra-Large’s hubby hadn’t offered her (Extra-Large) to Lame Carnie so he wouldn’t have to make the effort his own self.

Psychic-Coma-Momma is slowly going crazy because she claims to have been raped by a guy with a tree tattooed on his back and because, though she is in a coma, she can make numerous faces that uniformly emote constipation. Also, Psychic-Coma-Momma wanted Odd-But-Intriguing-Looking-Daughter to hook up with Doofy-Dust-Bowl-Boy-Who-Is-The-One, but Doofy-Dust-Bowl-Boy wants the middle-aged snake charmer — who, solely for descriptive purposes, I will refer to as Adrienne Barbeau — when he is not having his own nightmare visions of Tree-Tattoo-Guy or possibly Demon-Minister, who snaps necks with a mere thought and kisses his twisted, spinster sister who, in turn, serves as a cautionary example of what happens to your face when you go through life with pursed lips.

Demon-Minister himself has identical and synchronized nightmare visions about Doofy-Dust-Bowl-Boy. Then of course there are the nightmare visions of a guy who is something of a Jon Voight lookalike. Jon-Voight-Lookalike has some indeterminate and dangerous history with Blind-Guy-With-A-Predilection-For-Female-Facial-Hair. Blind-Guy-Et-Cetera speaks to — could it be? — Satan who lives behind a curtain in a trailer — I’m sorry, a prefab home — and wants to make of Doofy-Dust-Bowl-Boy his padawan in spite of, or maybe because of, the fact the Doofy-Dust-Bowl-Boy may be Jon-Voight-Lookalike’s son.

The most normal person is a dwarf with legs of mismatched length.

Got it? OK, here’s the weirdest thing: It works.

The most striking thing about Carnivale is the atmosphere. Think of X-Files at its spookiest combined with the cult movie Freaks, mix a bit of The Omen, and set it all in the stark depression era Southwest and you’re about there — except it’s HBO so they can crank up the shock coefficient now and then. Luckily they don’t take this to ozworthy levels. All this has an even stronger impact because there is a studied authenticity to the dialog including genuine ’30s carnie slang, and there is a noticeable lack of good looking people, unlike your standard film and video fare where even a destitute low-life can get portrayed by a supermodel. Old folks have prominent creases, the haircuts are bad, the queen stripper is fat and the freaks are freaky. Basically, it’s weird and ugly, but you can’t look away.

But atmosphere alone can’t sustain drama. There are three broad plotlines. The lion’s share of time is devoted to Ben (Doofy-Dust-Bowl-Boy-Who-Is-The-One) and his archetypical search for himself. Ben and his Mom live on a farm raising crops of what appears to be dirt. Ben’s Mom, a decidedly unpleasant woman in a Mommie Dearest kind of way, is dying but she refuses to let him heal her by touch because she believes his power is a sign of evil. Meanwhile the bank is about to foreclose on the dirt farm and Ben has to stand down a bulldozer, Tiananmen-like, until he can bury his now dead Mom. That’s when the carnies show up. They help Ben bury his Mom and give him a job. This carnival, cleverly named Carnivale, seems to be run by a tough, practical, but compassionate dwarf named Samson and has the usual assortment of gypsies, tramps and theives. Yet it turns out Samson, like all of us, answers to Management. In this case, Management is an unseen entity behind a curtain that communicates via Linda Hunt’s voice, and is strongly suggested to be The Fallen Angel and I don’t mean Demi Moore. Ben, who is carrying an elephant-sized chip on his shoulder, is now the object of everyone’s interest. All are competing to get control of him and his power in one way or another. In the course of the season Ben manages to learn more about his absent father and his power — seems he can’t heal and resurrect without killing in proportion; this can take the form of hundreds of dead fish in return for a mended broken arm, acres of dead crops for a healed deformity, or a life for a life in the case of resurrection. Ben also has frequent visions and nightmares of things that are symbolic of, well, something. We’re not really sure what, but there’s no doubt they’re symbolic.

Plotline two is centered on a preacher man, Brother Justin, (exceptionally well played by Clancy Brown). Brother Justin is a man of frighteningly powerful faith. He is also a man who can kill with a look, or perhaps even more alarmingly, he can force others to see and confront the evil acts they have committed and tried to hide. Justin is also on a path of self-discovery that involves his past and his powers. Justin’s desire to do God’s work clashes with his capacity to inflict pain and suffering and drives him first to lose his faith, then perhaps his sanity, then regain them in what may be a dangerous form.

Plotline three involves the less powerful carnies involved in a love triangle — actually a quadrangle — no, call it a pentagon. I would go on a bit a about this but it would end up sounding like the first three paragraphs. Suffice it to say this is pretty much straight soap opera fodder and, so far, has little to do with the deeper themes.

Even as the first season has ended, Carnivale has not revealed much of what it is about. The look and feel has been mesmerizing, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the storylines. There are strong indications that we are moving toward some sort of ultimate battle of good and evil. Ben and Brother Justin are clearly linked: they have identical nightmares involving each other, although they are not acquainted. Both reject evil and have solid influences in their lives towards good, but their powers place them in a position where even if they don’t overtly commit evil acts for evil’s sake, they may have to risk committing them in the pursuit of a greater good, or at least what is a greater good in their flawed, human judgment. And they may be on a collision course.

Or maybe not. Carnivale is in a precarious state, dramatically speaking. There is a wonderful opportunity to turn this into a coherent, original work that explores the intertwined nature of good and evil, where and how to draw the line of doing evil in the service of good, and how all that affects the players personally. Or it could fall into hopeless cliches like the standard issue evil preacher or the scary monster behind the curtain. Or it could stumble into confused stories, tenuously linked by little more than aesthetics (kind of like the last couple of seasons of the X-files). But the good news is that it’s not TV, it’s HBO, and given the track record of HBO original programming there’s a good chance they’ll succeed.

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About David Mazzotta

  • I’m of a bunch of minds about Carnivale. While I like the grimness, unlike Six Feet Under, there are no laughs. And the magic schtick is, I expect, going to be used as a cheat to get the writers out of the corner they will paint themselves into.

    Also, you’d think if’n you had to bury momma, a bulldozer would be powerful useful to achieve that end. But since Dirtboy can’t even be bothered to get a new shirt, I guess practicality isn’t among his virtues.

    Carnivale is interesting, but with all the mystic mumbo-jumbo and making up the rules as they go along, I think it doesn’t give its audience very much in return.

    And would it be too much to ask to see Adrianne Barbeau’s hooters?

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    If you find this show intriguing,then
    you should search out the 1947 movie
    “Nightmare Alley”.It stars Tyrone Power
    as a phony Psychic/Prophet traveling
    with a seedy carnival who ascends to
    fame and fortune via deception and his
    ultimate decline into alcoholism and
    circus geekdom.Having only seen one Ep.
    of “Dark Carnivale” it was clear to me
    that a small part of inspiration for this show was drawn from “N.A.”.Enjoy!

  • “Nightmare Alley”, that’s what I was looking for! I’ve never seen the movie, but it is based on the novel, which I’d read years ago, and is even darker and more disturbing than Carnivale.

    The novel is a noir classic. I was thinking of it, but couldn’t recall the title while watching Carnivale.

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    Jim you’re right,Nightmare Alley is a
    classic piece of Roman Noir.I was going
    to mention the book but just could not
    remember the author.Still can’t.The film
    version of “N.A” is one of the few cases
    of a great book making the transition to
    great movie.As a point of interest the
    movie was produced by Mr.Georgie Jessel!
    The only production of his that I know
    of.You should be able to find the film
    online rather easily.I found mine years
    ago.It’s probably on DVD by now.

  • Jim – yes, that’s the key, not using the fact that it’s a supernatural based show to get you out of making good drama. I can’t think of many fantasy/scifi shows that have done this other than for an episode or two at a time, nevermind a whole season or series. If they can pull it off it will be a remarkable acheivement.

    More on Nightmare Alley: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/NightmareAlley-10001187/reviews.php

  • Nightmare Alley has also been adapted as a good graphic novel by former undergrounder Spain. A Blogcritics review can be found here.

  • The link didn’t stick. That Nightmare Alley is at http://blogcritics.org/archives/2003/02/09/175145.php.