When Carnivàle premiered on BBC TV in the autumn of 2003 I eagerly anticipated it as the trailer had suggested that the show was going to share more than just the appearance of dwarf actor Michael J. Anderson in the regular cast with landmark surreal series Twin Peaks which had its run just over a decade before. Unfortunately, as was the fate of many US series aired by the BBC at the time it was forever being shifted around by the schedulers making it impossible to pre-empt the exact day or time to set the video and consequently I missed too many crucial early episodes and was forced to abandon it.
The series met the same end as Twin Peaks when it was cancelled by the network midway through its second season and to the best of my knowledge it has not been repeated on UK television since. Fortunately I recently discovered it available to download from HBO’s Apple TV channel and have just spent the best part of two weeks addictively working my way through the entire 24 hour long episodes and whilst the door is left open for a continuing series there is a satisfying enough conclusion that doesn’t leave one feeling cheated when the final credits roll.
The story is set in America during the 1930s Great Depression and focuses on the members of a travelling carnival as they journey south through the drought stricken plains of the Dust Bowl most famously recorded by John Steinbeck in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath. The troupe come across 18 year old protagonist Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) burying his dead mother as his home is bulldozed by the landowners; he is persuaded to join the carnival by its diminutive organiser Samson (Michael J. Anderson) who reports directly to the deeply mysterious “Management” hidden behind a small curtained annex at the back of his trailer.
The carnival folk soon discover that the troubled Ben is not just a farmhand but an escapee from a chain gang and a fledgling faith healer who is just discovering his powers and wants to learn how to harness them. The plot is concurrently driven by the actions of a California Preacher, Reverend Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) and his sister Iris (Amy Madigan) who are founding a Methodist Ministry for the undesirable migrants who have fled the “Black Blizzards” of Oklahoma. From the first episode it appears that Brother Justin is potentially possessed when he catches a vagrant woman stealing from the congregation plate and the resulting confrontation leads to her coughing up copious amount of coins.
Creator and principal writer Daniel Knauf conceived Carnivàle as an overarching good-versus-evil story propelled by two gradually converging plot threads; Ben Hawkins’ quest to find his estranged father Henry Scudder (John Savage) and Brother Justin’s mission to build his grand Temple of Jericho. The two characters emerge via dreams and visions to be set on a path of destruction, maintaining tension and ambiguity as to which of them is a “Creature of Light” and which a “Creature of Darkness” well into the second season. The show covers topics as diverse as Tarot Divination, Radio Evangelism, The Knights Templar and Religious Avatars and includes characters like the catatonic fortune-telling Apollonia and her tarot-reading daughter Sophie (Clea DuVall) along with the blind mentalist Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) who appear to be more than merely circus acts but truly gifted seers whose spirits transcend far beyond the present reality.
Carnivàle grips you from the first moments and never let’s go, it’s riveting, exquisitely written and performed; don’t let it’s weighty religious themes put you off as it never sinks into solemnity, there are plenty of lighter scenes and witty dialogue to ensure that each episode leaves you eager for more. Clancy Brown brings both an effortless charm and a demonic fervour to his magnetic performance as Brother Justin and Nick Stahl convinces as the reluctant hero Ben Hawkins. If you enjoyed Twin Peaks and have never seen Carnivàle then it comes highly recommended, it’s unlikely to ever get a Blu-ray release but both seasons are available on DVD.