It is a crying shame that the performances of fine actors such as Clancy Brown, Tim DeKay, and Nick Stahl (among many others) are wasted on such a ponderous, self-involved story that seems hell-bent on interfering with any attempt to reach for the stars. We, the audience, are left asking not "Who is Henry Scudder?" or "What is the under-lying mythology of this show?" but instead pondering what kind of creator would insist with such passion that his show remain obscure and cult-based instead of achieving something truly great.
While the setting is rich and unique in its portrayal of mid-20th century America, it is not to be confused with a show like Mad Men. The dull, dusty shades of Carnivale create a different kind of atmosphere altogether - one that is not timeless, but out of time; not unabashedly glamorous, but despicably captivating. Unlike Mad Men, which promises to whisk you away to the classiest party where every gentleman feels like a gentleman and every lady helps that process along, Carnivale threatens to suffocate you with the most magical land that everybody has always known.
This mood is an accomplishment in itself, wholly unique and unreproducible. But with this accomplishment comes the greatest of responsibilities - to reach for the stars. And in failing to do so - in failing to do so with such fervent and implacable passion - the show sealed its own fate. The performances are fine, from the mellow, but startlingly brash Ben Hawkins, to the passionate, mad preachings of Brother Justin, to the subtle and stoic man's man Clayton Jones, to everyone in between. Yet instead of focusing this energy and charisma and forcing the characters to confront each other and work off of each other, they are instead separated - by distance and the heavy-handed ever-reaching arm of the story.
IMDB trivia states that the Justin Crowe character was originally intended to start as an established name with power and influence, but was pushed backwards in time as the writers realized there was no room for him to expand; thus his presence on the show's first two seasons is quite literally him catching up to where he was intended to start. I've absolutely no trouble believing this tale, as it is only far too obvious that the entirety of the first (and only) two seasons of the show are spent in a neat rush to get somewhere nobody knows -- or wants to go.
The show did not give its actors the opportunity to make it into something great because no matter what they did, there was always a cap that said, "You cannot be more, because this is not where the show is going." One of the finest performances in the series is that of Tim DeKay's "Jonesy," and yet his role in the mythology of the show is minimal at best, when compared to characters like Ben or Brother Justin or Samson or even Ruthie. Yet the show never allowed itself to take advantage of these improvised opportunities because it was in too great a rush to tell a story it felt was worth telling.
In the end, the only story it told was the cautionary tale of a creative force that snuffed out the spark of life in any unforeseen opportunity by placing priority in mystery and lore over the most important and fascinating mysteries of all...