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.