by Billie Doux
I just finished watching the second and, unfortunately, last season of Carnivale.
HBO has done some amazing and creative series..eses. Six Feet Under is one of my very favorite shows. Deadwood is unique and outright brilliant. They're also strange, unusual, and controversial. I like that.
But Carnivale may be the strangest of them all.
Carnivale is set in the midwest and in California in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression. Most of the action occurs in a carnival that goes from town to town, barely making enough money to get by. There's always magic at a carnival. Some of it's real, and some of it is not.
You see, there are these avatars. What is an avatar? According to my Webster's, "avatar," noun, in Hindu doctrine, the descent to Earth and incarnation of a deity. In every generation, according to the Carnivale universe, there are two avatars: one good, and one evil. One is Ben Hawkins. The other is Brother Justin. Which is good, and which is evil? And are the lines drawn all that clearly?
Let's see. Ben Hawkins, played by the very talented Nick Stahl, is literally a fugitive from a chain gang who works as a roustabout in a seedy carnival. Ben is sad and serious. He is thin, his face is dirty, and he wears ragged clothing. And then there is Brother Justin, played by the equally talented and charismatic Clancy Brown. A devout minister, Justin prefers to tend to the poor migrants instead of the rich townspeople. He is devoted to his spinster sister and to the gentle minister who adopted them both. Justin is clean, well-groomed, well-spoken, and carries a Bible. Of course, he's the evil one.
But in truth, Ben and Justin are reflections of each other. The use of mirrors in this series is just utterly fascinating. In some instances, it's obvious that the reflection we're seeing isn't the real one. The use of tarot cards is also very cool, especially in the eerie opening credits.
The cast of characters is as strange and as wonderful as one could hope. Clea Duvall is a standout as Sofie the fortune teller, as is Michael J. Anderson as Samson the dwarf. Tim McKay plays one of my favorite characters, a former baseball player named Jonesy. Amy Madigan is outstanding as Justin's protective older sister. I also loved every member of the amoral, dysfunctional Dreifuss family, with the father Felix as the barker and his wife and daughters "dancing the cootch" and hooking on the side. I must be terribly naive, but I didn't realize such things happened in carnivals. Where have I been?
Season one has some fascinating episodes. The emphasis was on establishing the characters and the universe. In season two, everything revved the hell up. The last few episodes of the series are just edge-of-your-seat riveting. And at least we were left with something resembling a climax. I'm somewhat satisfied.
But I'd still love to see season three.