If you have never heard of Carnivàle it may simply mean it is not a TV show for you. Not that it’s exclusive but it is demanding and doesn’t appeal to everyone. Let’s be honest – Carnivàle does carry a certain amount of weirdness. It’s a Lady Gaga amongst TV shows – but without the global commercial success and unnecessary pseudo-intellectual contexts. However, I highly recommend taking the time to watch the whole of it – as the creator Daniel Knauf said: “you may not understand everything that goes on but it does make a certain sense”.
Carnivàle is a mystery/thriller TV series produced by HBO which ran for two seasons in 2003-2005. It ended up cancelled being too costly for the network and despite the fans’ greatest efforts to bring it back it was never renewed. Carnivàle won numerous awards, including four Emmys (and another ten Emmy nominations) and is still considered to be one of the best TV series ever made and a masterpiece.
The show is set during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl in the USA. It begins with the manager of the carnival, Samson, giving a prologue: „Before the beginning, after the great war between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called Man. And to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness (…)” The quote itself says a lot about the show’s construction and main theme – the battle between good and evil and the struggle between free will and destiny.
The plot follows two lead characters which at the beginning seem to have nothing in common. Ben Hawkins is a young farmer from Oklahoma picked up by a travelling carnival after the death of his mother. During his problematic youth the boy developed supernatural abilities which didn’t exactly help keeping him out of trouble. The second man is Brother Justin Crowe, an extremely charismatic Christian preacher living with his sister Iris in California. The discovery of his powers affects him just as deeply as is does affect Ben. Both of them experience visions and recurring dreams which set them on a hunt for one another.
What is so fascinating about the show is that the unusual story sucks you in and grows on you with every second to the extent of addiction. Despite its serious content it doesn’t drip with pathos, the characters feel as natural as they can being carnies and freaks. The show is crude and very disturbing – from the creepiness of the fortune-teller’s mother through the pathology of Rita Sue’s family to brother Justin’s relationship with his sister and other women in general. Acting deserves a lot of special attention here. Clancy Brown makes the person of a lunatic priest both scary and captivating. He takes the viewers into his mad world and until the very end makes them wonder about the nature of his intentions. Nick Stahl also plays his part brilliantly, changing Ben from a farmer boy to a powerful protagonist of the series. All of the cast does an incredible job, however a separate shout out should go to Michael J. Anderson – the midget Samson is the show’s mainstay of justice and wisdom.The demanding bit mentioned before is known as the mythology of Carnivàle. It contains elements of Christian theology, tarot divination, gnosticism and Masonic lore. Even the surnames of the leading characters carry a meaning – they suggest a symbolic link to hawks and crows, the winged Creatures of Light and Dark. There is a lot of space for viewer’s own interpretation which makes for quality TV.
In conclusion, Carnivàle is a definite must-see for everyone seeking extraordinary and esoteric entertainment. All the elements of the show work together perfectly. Even the opening sequence is a true pearl with many interesting additions to the good-versus-evil theme. But be aware that this piece of art will set the target of excellence for other TV shows and will not let you go back to watching One Tree Hill without a feeling of insufficiency.