Carnivale: the creepiest creepfest on television

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.

[Some spoilers for the entire series below!]

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?

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.
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Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well I've already heard so many positive things about it, and your review inspired to put it on my netflix account. Am popping the first disc into my DVD player now.

Anonymous said...

It always looked too confusing for words for me, and Nick Stahl is not a charismatic actor. Your review has persuaded me to give it a second glance.

iain said...

Great series. Probably moved a little too slow for the MTV generation -- but the pace and the atmosphere were really what the show was all about. The fact that they didn't get to even start a season 3 is a tragedy, but what are you going to do? Enjoy the two we got, I say. And go watch Deadwood (while we have it).

Nick said...

I agree with Iain. The pace was probably a little too slow for a lot of people, which explains it's demise. But keep with it and you'll be rewarded immensely with rich characterizations and haunting myths. I'm not too satisfied with the final episode though, but only because it left the story in a freakin' cliffhanger. I need to know what happens next!

Nick said...

Oh, and I forgot to ask. Ever planning to write reviews for them? :)

Billie Doux said...

It's possible. I've thought about it, but I'm way overcommitted right now. Although that hasn't stopped me in the past.