Saturday , May 25 2024
HBO's new dark circus fantasy.


If you learn anything about life in Depression Era America from watching HBO’s new dark fantasy series Carnivale, it’s this: it sure was dusty back then. “I’m damn tired of wakin’ up with grit in my teeth,” one of the sluttish hoochie koochie gals who bump-&-grind for Burnett Bros. Fair observes in the second episode, and from what we’ve seen so far, we get where she’s coming from.
Created by Dan Knauf, Carnivale follows the travails of a struggling circus as it drives through Grapes of Wrathland by way of Twin Peaks. First time we see the traveling circus, it’s outside the Dust Bowl farm of Ben Hawkins (Nick “Terminator 3” Stahl) and his recently deceased mother. Ben is struggling to hold off a bulldozer that’s about to demolish the foreclosed farm and bury his ma in the fallow ground, when the carnie folk show up to provide some moral support – and not incidentally offer him a job as a roustabout once the burying’s done. Ben’s been “expected” by the show’s Management, and before the first episode ends, we have an inkling why. The young farm kid with the chain gang scars on his ankles has healing power in his hands. He cures a small girl stricken with polio at the end of the opening episode, laying waste to the crops all around him as he does.
Ben’s also troubled by a series of portentous nightmares that he shares with Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), an evangelist with the ability to impose visions on those he touches. When he catches a destitute Okie woman trying to steal from the collection basket, a shower of coins seemingly starts spurting from her mouth like cherries from an Eastwicke-ian. Brother Justin claims to be doing God’s work, but the way we see him spying on his bathing sister Iris (Amy Madigan) tells a different story.
Ben and Justin aren’t the only ones seeing omens. Two of the carnies, a blind mentallist named Lodz (Patrick Bachau) and a catatonic fortuneteller known as Apollonia (Diane Sallinger), are tracking the young roustabout with interest – Lodz after he unwisely touches the sleeping newcomer and becomes privy to his nightmares. To the rest of the circus folk, Ben may be a rube – in the opening ep he’s taunted by a group of sideshow freaks that includes a lizard man and a pair of singing Siamese Twins – but that’s a judgment we know won’t last many episodes. The unseen Management, speaking through chatty dwarf manager Samson (David Lynch regular Michael J. Anderson, who must be pleased as punch to not have his words coming out backwards), knows Ben is important in some as yet-undefined Staving-off-Apocalypse kinda way. And Apollonia, speaking telepathically to her Tarot-wielding daughter Sofie (Clea Duvall), doesn’t want Ben to get away either.
In the midst of all the dark visions (a trailer that appears and disappears, a “pickled punk” that opens its eyes and follows Ben as he dashes out of the trailer, snow that turns into blood on Brother Justin’s face, and so on), there’s also a mystery surrounding Ben’s dead mother and a former Carnivale performer named Hank Scudder, the Gentleman Geek. Could this mystery be related to Ben’s dreams? Of course it is, but exactly how is still unclear. We’re in, Samson intones in the premiere’s opening, a time of Light and Darkness. But all that Great Clash ‘tween Good & Evil stuff is still just secondary to the ewww-enducing sight of lizard man Gecko shedding his skin.
Carnivale does a slick job evoking the look and feel of its period – and it’s filled with lingo and behind-the-tent details Ten-in-One buffs will love. The supporting cast is plentiful if initially a bit confusing: from a still-potent Adrienne Barbeau as the mother of a dim circus strongman to Debra Christofferson’s sensuous bearded lady to Ralph Waite (what’s a Great Depression fable without Ralph Waite?) as Brother Justin’s preachifyin’ mentor. On the basis of two slow-building episodes, it’s obvious the show’s leading toward a showdown between Justin and Ben (one a deliverer of false images, the other a for-real healer), but it’s also apparent that there’s more to the Carnivale than we’ve yet been allowed to see.
Pretty gothic for HBO, which, after all, has built its teevee drama rep on more moderne angst-filled fare like The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under (though both this last and Carnivale share a similar love for the macabre). Twin Peaks, perhaps its closest forbearer, still kept its action in the here-and-now, not a year where “The Shadow” still reigned on radio. Will Carnivale build the same level of buzz HBO’s Emmy nomination hogs have garnered? Doubtful, but who cares? On the basis of its first two episodes, I’m ready to surrender to the show’s first season. Dust and all, Carnivale is the most promising fantasy television debuting this fall.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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