I've finally got round to watching Carnivale (after ages) and quite frankly I've been blown away by it. The show's two seasons packed in high drama, some wry comedy and an labyrinthine plot encompassing Masonic lore, mythology, spiritualism and the age-old struggle of good and evil.
In 1934, a young fugitive named Ben Hawkins is taken in by a travelling carnival that is passing his hometown in Oklahoma. Amongst the carnival's attractions include a tarot reader named Sofie and her catatonic mother, a bearded lady, siamese twins, a blind mentalist named Lodz, a snake-charmer called Ruthie and the Dreifuss family who run the strip tent. Ben seems like a regular young man- but he harbours a great talent. He has an almost messianic power to heal- but it comes at a price. Ben has cryptic, prophetic and terrifying dreams which he shares with a Methodist preacher- Brother Justin Crowe- who resides in Mintern, California. Justin has powers of his own and, believing he is doing God's work, follows a path that leads to darkness and tragedy. As the carnival comes ever closer to California, a meeting between Ben and Brother Justin becomes inevitable. But who stands for good and who for evil?
The show is very stylish and stylised. The whole look and feel of the show is incredibly authentic. Indeed the art direction, cinematography, hairstyling and costumes were all honoured at the 2004 Emmys. A particular shoutout must go to the opening credits sequence- one of the best to be seen on TV. A rich mix of tarot imagery intermixed with scenes from 1930s Dustbowl America which helps to set the central premise of the show up. Also, Jeff Beal's music is some of the best I've heard.
Performances are strong all across the board and it seems unfair to really single anyone out for particular praise. Nick Stahl is great as Ben who- like the audience- learns about his powers, his heritage and the future piece by piece. Playing his opposite, Clancy Brown puts in a tour-de-force performance as Brother Justin. Charismatic and smooth-voiced, he is capable of turning on a sixpence to reveal his more sinister side. He is never better than orating one of the brilliantly-written blood-and-thunder evangelical sermons Justin is given as the show continues.
Clea DuVall plays Sofie particularly well, too. A shame that the show was cancelled when it was as Sofie's character was starting to really come into her own. Adrienne Barbeau is strong as snake-charmer Ruthie (one of my personal favourite characters), whilst Cynthia Ettinger and Carla Gallo give very earthy and real performances as mother and daughter strippers Rita Sue and Libby. Tim DeKay is also particularly good as carnival roustie Jonesy (and he's damn handsome too). Another standout is Oscar-nominee Amy Madigan who plays Justin's protective older sister Iris, a seemingly dowdy and plain old spinster who will do anything to help her brother succeed. To wrap up the great performances is Michael J. Anderson as carnival manager Samson. Anderson is perhaps better as the backward spouting midget in the red suit from Twin Peaks, a show which shares some qualities with Carnivale in a way.
Show creator Daniel Knauf has originally conceived Carnivale as a six-season show, with each set of two seasons comprising one book. Despite being popular with fans, HBO cancelled the show in 2005 as it concluded its second season, leaving viewers on one almighty cliffhanger. Here's hoping they see the error of their ways and we can get to see the rest of this sumptuous vision as we were meant to.