Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Good, The Evil, and The Freaks

A Boxed-Set Review

season 1: Think of it as Lynch meets Browning by way of Stephen King. Carnivale was like no other show on television in its scale, themes and sensibilities. The brain child of Daniel Knauf, who himself said that of all the things he'd written he never thought it would be produced, Carnivale was suppose to be a 6-year 'serial for television' in much the same way that Babylon 5 was a '5-year novel for television'. Unfortunately Carnivale was cancelled by HBO after its 2nd season due to mounting expenses and declining viewership, what was done of the story however is worth a look for those who can handel its audacity.

The intro to the pilot sets up the basic mythological premise of the show, namely that to each generation of man is born "a creature of light, and a creature of darkness" to act out the old battle between good and evil. It is also stated that the beings of light and darkness who came to a head in the 1930's would be that last such beings to exist, as the explosion of the atomic bomb over Trinity would forever kill that magical element in man that allowed for true faith in the mystical. The series is presented as two sides of a coin, following the parallel rise of a savior and anti-Christ beginning in 1934.

The destined savior is Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) an escape from an Oklahoma chain-gang who is picked up by a traveling carnivale and brought on as a 'roustabout'. Since his childhood Nick has had a strange ability to heal, even brining a dead kitten back to life as a young boy. Bens religiously fanatical mother convinced her son that this power was of the devil, and he has been hiding and neglecting his talent ever since. The rising anti-Christ comes from a much different and unexpected background, Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) is a small town California Methodist Minister living alone with his sisiter Iris (Amy Madigan). Justin is a dull but well meaning pastor until he starts having visions and discovers he has magical powers, paramount among these is the ability to force others to relive their most shameful sins, an experience so dramatic that it drives at least one man to suicide. Justin starts out wanting to use his powers for good, but as the season progresses he gets drawn more and more to the darkside, coming to view himself as the Old Testaments 'Left Hand of God' a kind of destroying angel.

In addition to the cosmic battle between good and evil which is the shows primary thematic focus, you also have the more soap-opera style happings of the various carnivale folks. Samson (Michael J. Anderson) is the midget who runs the carnivale, a charming chap he is well liked by the troupe but always keeps his distance. Clayton Jones (Tim DeKay) or "Jonsey" to most people is the chief roustabout and 'John Wayne' figure of the show. Adrine Barbeau is Ruthie the 50ish snake charmer and Brian Turk her son Gabriel, "the strongest man in North America". There is also the whole Dreifuss clan, the family who run the carnivales 'hootchi-kootchi show'. Apparently these 'strip-tease' programs where often done as a family affair in the 30's, thus making the Dreifuses a rather screwed-up but oddly loving family. The break out star of the show in my book is Clea DuVall as Sofie, who through a telepathic link with her comatose mother Apollonia "The Queen of the Gypsy's" (Diane Salinger), is the troupes tarot card reader. The most notable freak is "Gecko" (John Fleck) a human lizard with a multing problem.

The Carnavale travels from town to town in the southern US between California and Texas encountering various other interesting characters along the way, including a 'lobster girl' and a town populated almost entirely by ghosts. Like 24 this show is not afraid to go in interesting directions and I can promises you that 2-3 major characters die in the 12-episode first season alone. The big arc in season one for Ben is his discovery that the father he never knew once worked at the carnaval as "Henry Scudder the Gentleman Geek" (guy who bits live chickens heads off). Nicks father, who is also known as "Hack" (John Savage) keeps appearing in his sons dreams, which often take place either in a corn field or the trenches of World War One where his father fought. It is quite possible that his father was either the being of light or of darkness for 'the lost generation'. "Management" the reclusive owner of the carnivale who never comes out of his trailer has been looking for Hack for years, though most folks think he's dead. While we are never shown what "Management" looks like and only hear him talking from behind the velvet curtain that hides his bed, I'm pretty sure the man is a former German solder who has been badly mauled by a performing bear. If you want to make any sense of that last statement your just going to have to watch the show. Again be warned that Carnavile is TV-M, but quite the show none the less.


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