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DVD Review: Carnivale – Season One

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I’m not sure how to do this prematurely cancelled series justice, but let me try to entice you. It’s the Great Depression, you’ve got the Dust Bowl, a bearded lady, a catatonic woman who communicates with her Tarot card reading daughter via her psychic powers, naked ladies, and a Methodist minister who is the voice of a radio ministry with an ambiguous moral alignment and an even more sexually ambiguous relationship with his older sister. Oh, and did I mention the ex-convict who has mysterious, seemingly magical abilities?

Carnivale stars Nick Stahl as Ben Hawkins and Clancy Brown as Brother Justin Crowe, two completely different people mysteriously connected by vivid, frightening, phantasmagoric dreams, and newfound mysterious abilities. When outlining the plot it’s easy to see this as a typical hero’s journey, but there is something much more than that going on when you watch an episode of Carnivale, its the way these stories are executed. Almost every frame is a perfectly balanced still photo of a different, more magical and passionate time in America.

The art direction and costuming in this series unite in a way that carries the story into the stratosphere for the viewer — every detail has been accounted for, every bottle of Vitalis, every pocket knife, has been checked for authenticity. Visually Carnivale presents a landscape that can be returned to over and over again to reveal new details, like a beautiful symphony or volume of poems. The title sequence for the series alone took six months to create, just to give the more practical reader an idea of what I’m talking about.

But more importantly, creator Dan Knauf has given us a group of intriguing characters with complexity and depth. When told we are going to watch something about side-show freaks or evangelists, so many of us have the stock characters in our minds before they even utter a word on screen. I think the most important thing that separates the wheat from the chaff in this show is that Mr. Knauf and the other writers have pushed the boundaries of those preconceived ideas.

To put it bluntly, you think weird and Knauf doesn’t disappoint; he takes you even further. Somehow Carnivale manages to make family prostitution seem perfectly respectable, and the domestic life of a minister and his spinster sister deliciously wicked. Although you are prepared for wack and woe to abound in this kind of drama, I still found my jaw dropping at certain points.

I can’t remember the last time I became this caught up in characters in a book or series, let alone on television, and I’m not alone. The series was cancelled a year ago, and the message boards on Yahoo are still active with over 6,000 members. The last 20 posts dealt directly with fan debates over the mythology behind the show, the meaning of good and evil, and the birth of a fan’s baby. There is a file floating around the internet entitled “The Gospel of Knaufias” which attempts to piece together a kind of “bible” fans can use as a companion guide. Just two weeks ago there was a live fan convention called CarnyConLive, where a majority of the actors from the show turned out and fans were actually able to meet their favorite characters as well as the writers and artists that made this show such a phenomenon.

The second season will be coming out on DVD July 18, which will hopefully generate buzz anew about this show. As someone who became a fan long after the show’s fate was determined I can’t help but be a little sad that after this there will be nothing more for me to look forward to. Petitions went around, email campaigns to HBO took place, and fan power was enough to conjure up the men and women behind the magic for a meet and greet, and still that hasn’t been enough to convince HBO that there is enough interest in the show.

Watching an episode from a writer’s point of view as well as from the point of view of someone that has worked in production, costuming and the like, I can see how such an undertaking must have been incredibly expensive, time-consuming and painstaking. But the most important thing I’ve walked away with is a belief in miracles, because from the first frames of the opening sequence to the series finale twenty-four hours later, I was in awe that a show this well- written and beautiful to behold stayed on the air so long.

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About Sovereign Syre

We were raised as wolves, and as wolves we will remain.
  • http://i81.photobucket.com/albums/j216/eclectic_calm/me.jpg DanielDarko

    I read about this show before, but I didn’t realize quite how beautifully twisted it really was. Any production that mixes strange perversions with picturesque cinematic artistry is bound to be a hit with me. I’m anxious to see how many times I get the chills.

  • http://www.marionsnewyork.com Marionj2

    Good review of an excellent show. It’s been a year since it was cancelled, and I still watch an episode at least once a week. (I’m trying to pace myself.)

    Every time I see it, there are scenes that take my breath away. I was at CarnyCon, and met many of the actors, but I watch Carnivale and see, not the actor, but the character. That’s a rare thing for me – I usually see a performer playing a role. But Ben, Justin and the rest are real to me.

    One thing missing from this review – the music. From the incredible and at some times profoundly creepy music by Jeff Beal, to the popular songs of the 30’s, this has some of the best music of any show.

    Carnivale was the best thing HBO has ever produced. Too bad they don’t care.

  • http://blog.myspace.com/manonmaru Virginia Dare

    Oh, I so agree. One of my favorite scenes featured “Libby” doing a seductive dance to the original version of Minnie the Moocher.

  • Ardra71

    Whoever is not aware of this HBO treasure should definitely become aware of it. Carnivale is arguably the most fascinating TV show ever put to film.

    Carnivale is introduced perfectly by its opening monologue: “Before the beginning, after the great war between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called man. And to each generation was born a creature of light, and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then…nobility…and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was. Until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason.” From that point forward, I had to know what it all meant. I was hooked.

    Carnivale is the odyssey of Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe, the creatures of light and darkness respectively (Avatars) of their generation. The setting is in a travelling carnival full of VERY colorful characters roaming the dust bowl of 1934, led by the mysterious and unseen figurehead known only as Management, which picks up Ben just as he loses everything he’s ever known…and in Mintern California where Brother Justin holds court over his church and congregation. As they catch glimpses of each other in their tortured dreams, they begin to discover their own true supernatural natures. One embraces his Avataric calling while the other tries to run away from it.

    I haven’t met a single person yet who wasn’t hopelessly pulled in by the 3rd or 4th episode. After that, each episode becomes a special occasion for them. So, since HBO has done a nearly non-existent job of promoting Carnivale, we’re taking it to the people. Give yourself a big treat and take a peek at Carnivale.

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    Season 2 comes out on DVD soon… YAH!

  • http://blog.myspace.com/manonmaru Virginia Dare

    For me its all about Amy Madigan…I’ll admit it, I love Iris Crowe. The beauty of it is, everyone seems to develop a favorite, fast. Every character in this drama has something compelling that calls out to the audience.

  • http://NA Kay Kelly

    Carnivale is a terrific series, and Virginia’s Review certainly does it justice! The main points I’d like to add:

    The two 12-episode seasons aired on HBO, set in 1934-35, told only one-third of creator Daniel Knauf’s planned story. It was to have continued with two-season arcs set in 1939-40 and 1944-45. HBO had encouraged Mr. Knauf to plan on telling the story over six seasons, when he was initially willing to compress it into three.

    Many fans refuse to believe we’ll never learn the rest of the story. Marvel Comics has expressed interest in adapting it for a series of graphic novels; but HBO, which owns all rights, refuses to permit that. Are they hoping DC Comics (under the same corporate umbrella as HBO) will pick it up? Or have they not completely abandoned the idea of someday bringing it back on TV? Current CEO Chris Albrecht never appreciated the show, but #2 Carolyn Strauss did…and Mr. Albrecht may not be there forever.

  • Nannette

    I really loved this show – am still watching it on Demand. I don’t understand what was going through the minds of the muckity mucks at HBO when they cancelled “Carnivale”. Silly boys in suits.

  • http://blog.myspace.com/manonmaru Virginia Dare

    I know I pace myself through the DVDs, trying to somehow make it last forever. Nerd that I am.

  • Ardra71

    Hey, I do the same thing. :) I started watching season 1 again during the same weekend that CarnyCon was being held. I hadn’t watched a single episode for 10 months before that, because I wanted to purge them from my memory as much as possible to keep them “fresh”. My friend and I will only watch 1 episode per week for 24 consecutive weeks until we’re done. After that, I’ll probably wait almost another year before I start in on them again.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Carnavale was a pretty cool show. But I pretty much knew it didn’t stand a chance–even on a “progressive” network like HBO–from day one.

    Too obscure to draw a mass audience. Carnavale’s weirdness made Twin Peaks seem like the Brady Bunch. And we all know how long Twin Peaks lasted…great show that it was.

    Weird morality tales like this never attract more than a devoted cult following on TV. Look at Chris Carter’s Millennium…another great, wonderfully weird show dealing with apocalyptic themes. Carter couldn’t get Millennium past a third season, even as he was riding the X-Files wave.

    Frankly, I’m amazed that Lost–probably the closest thing on TV right now to the quirky oddball quality of shows like Peaks, Millennium, and Carnavale–has done so well. That’s even after ABC seemed to be going out of it’s way to fuck it up with erratic scheduling and reruns.

    But yeah, I miss Carnavale too. Especially Clancy Brown’s deliciously evil tent show preacher. That was some quality tube.

    Good piece Ms. Dare. From a fellow Seattleite…

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    …Oh, and the gratuitous nudity never makes me switch channels either. Thats always a plus.

  • NerdHooligan

    Best show ever, man.

  • http://blog.myspace.com/manonmaru Virginia Dare

    Millenium, now there’s a show I NEVER hear about anymore, that was good stuff. And yes, Clancy Brown is the siniserest minister ever.

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