I just finished watching seasons one and two of Carnivale. Overall, I enjoyed the show-- clearly I enjoyed it enough to watch it to the end. I consider myself a member of the target audience: I love the Thirties, and count the television show TWIN PEAKS as well as books like Katherine Dunn's GEEK LOVE and movies like Todd Browning's FREAKS among my all-time favorites. From the outset, everything about Carnivale called my name.
However, I can see why the show was cancelled. It's gorgeously set with the kind of meticulous attention to detail that made me marvel at what kind of budget it must have had. The period costumes, especially the dresses are to die for-- I wish Carnivale had attained Mad Men's popularity if only because it might have ushered in a revival of Thirties styles.
That being said, I consider it a weakness of the show that I found my mind wandering distractedly to its art direction and budget because the actual story dragged so frequently. The pace was a real problem. In fact, I suspect that viewers who tuned out weren't so much mystified by the opacity or complexity of the show's mythology so much as frustrated by the writers' Chinese water torture technique of delivering crucial plot points. To use a carny analogy, it was like a striptease stretched out to three hours. By the time you get to the part you paid to see, you hardly care. The writers wasted a lot of opportunities to reveal information in the most dramatically satisfying way in favor of streeeeetching out the mystery and delaying the suspense. As a result, I often found the plot lagging behind my own imagination. The first time Ruthie sees a ghost is a good example. It takes Ruthie several episodes to recognize what I suspect most people in the audience figured out immediately.
I felt that Diane Salinger and Patrick Buchau were both wasted in their roles. I couldn't believe Apollonia's character was really destined to lie in bed for an entire season and then die. Lodz stole every scene that included him, but was condemned to spend most of his screen time not doing his thing and being a mentalist, but reiterating the same plea over and over (and over) again for Ben to listen to what he had to say. I sure wanted to know what Lodz had to say and I bet it would have made a thrilling scene if the writers had decided to include it instead of prolonging the mystery by getting rid of Lodz before anyone in the audience knows much about him or what he wants. Likewise, in the interest of maintaining mystery, the writers present us with a main character, Ben, with little personality except for being gruff, stubborn and secretive. It was difficult to relate to Ben or understand why some of the other characters were so drawn to him. Clancy Brown, reprising his role as the Kurgen in HIGHLANDER, was effective as Brother Justin, if only because he was designed as an ambiguous character rather than a total cipher. All of the actors did a great job portraying characters who seemed potentially intriguing even if many of them were held back.
Some people commented that the second half of season two felt rushed. I would agree, but I felt as though the pace of season two came much closer to approximating a rhythm that would have held the interest of more viewers, had it been applied to season one.