21 December 2003 | joshstep41
The best programming on HBO since their TALES FROM THE CRYPT series. Of course, some may argue that isn't saying much for CARNIVÀLE but it truly is a gem. This twelve episode first season (which debuted on September 14th) tells the tales of a traveling carnival amidst 1930s depression-era America. The show primarily follows two main characters; a chain-gang escapee named Hawkins (Nik Stahl of BULLY) and a Californian Preacher man (Clancy Brown of HIGHLANDER) by the name of Brother Justin. Both men contain mysterious powers and an unknown connection not only to each other, but also to a man from the Carnival's past named Scudder (the incomparable John Savage).
Young Hawkins is picked up by the carnival and hired as an extra hand. While traveling with the crew cross-country, he picks up subtle clues as to the significance of his dreams and learns more about his peculiar powers. Meanwhile, on the west coast, Brother Justin is tested time and again with his contemporaries' lack of faith and grows increasingly dangerous in his religiosity.
CARNIVÀLE has quite the cast of familiars, some known and others known only to cult fans. Most notably is 3'7" Michael J Anderson who plays Samson, the carnival boss. You'll most likely recognize him from David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS (1990) as the strange little fellow who spoke backwards. Andrienne Barbeau (ex wife to John Carpenter) plays a tattooed snake charmer by the name of Ruthie, Clea DuVall (BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER) plays young fortune teller Sophie, Glenn Shadix (Otho from BEETLEJUICE) appears regularly as a Californian politician, the 7'6" Mathew McGrory (Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and Tim Burton's BIG FISH) appears in the pilot episode, and the absolutely lovable horror favorite Bill Moseley (remembered best as Chop Top from TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2) plays Possum, the carnival's head cook.
The show's ultimate strength is the presentation of its visual tones, the lighting in particular is eerily beautiful. Most scenes are lit in reminiscence of the Italian Renaissance painting technique "chiaroscure," in which figures stand with an almost goldenish glow in stark contrast to the dark surroundings and or backgrounds. This is most obvious in scenes of Brother Justin at home with his sister Iris (Amy Madigan). These golden tones give the overall series a cohesive thematic. This is one of the strongest atmospheric shows I've ever seen on television. Furthermore, the grittiness and downright dirtiness of a poor traveling carnival through the dustbowls of America's Midwest is developed by the show's creators as yet another layer of ambiance. The characters appear dirtier and sweatier each progressing episode as they travel further south.
Being carried by HBO and not a mere network station allows CARNIVÀLE greater freedom for its tales. This is not just for mere nudity with the carnies' dancing girls or extra blood with any scenes of violence. Episodes five and six (titled "Babylon" and "Pick A Number") for example are tragically heart-breaking and downright scary on a number of levels. The direction, acting, imagery, and overall tone is brutally tear-jerking. This flexibility from conservative censorship only aides the story tellers in their craft.
By the final episode of the first season many elements of the story are brought together, yet just as many new questions arise for the viewer. Therefore much excitement and drama unfolds, but not enough to satisfy. Naturally, they want you to come back next time and plenty of story line still does lay over the horizon. Overall, this is a fantastic television series and I for one am eagerly awaiting the second season in the fall of 2004.