"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. To each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. And great armies would clash by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then, nobility and unimaginable cruelty. So it was until the day that a false sun exploded over trinity and man forever traded away wonder for reason."
-Samson establishing the tone and overarching theme of good versus evil in Carnivale-
In the world of genre television it has been something of a common refrain to witness great series cut down at their knees following the conclusion of two arguably remarkable seasons. Stargate Universe (2009-2011), Space:1999 (1975-1977), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009), and now potentially Defiance (2013-present). What's next HBO's The Leftovers (2015-present)?
I include Defiance because at three seasons we have a total of just thirty-eight episodes over the course of three years. It still comes up short of the forty episodes for Stargate Universe and forty-eight for Space:1999. If it is cancelled it will be in good company. We can always be grateful for what materialized and has now become memorialized for us in genre television no matter its brevity. It's about quality not quantity. Is it not? Still, we want more, we want more.
As much as we might curse those executives and studios, I don't discount or begrudge the fact someone allowed us access to these fascinating worlds and characters despite being seemingly cut down in their prime. Though we would all want more we don't walk away ungrateful for the chance to walk in these worlds and stroll among these universes. No matter how you slice it, or cancel it, great science fiction, however ephemeral, relatively speaking, is great science fiction.
HBO's Carnivale (2003-2005) is another of those perfect two season series that met an equally untimely demise. A magical, fantasy-laced travelling carnival explored a gorgeous cast of uncanny characters amidst a growing battle of good versus evil on Earth. It too was to suffer a similar, unfortunate fate to the aforementioned series noted above despite a lush, rich, detailed art production and cinematography that fully immersed the viewer and placed them squarely in the period of the Great Depression (1930s) and the American Dust Bowl (1934-1940) relying on resources like old Sears catalogues from the 1930s for accuracy and to get the details right.
Like so many others before it, Carnivale brought down its tent poles and closed ticket sales at just twenty-four episodes, just as the series was brewing toward something bigger and just as we had grown to love each and every one of these unique, colorful characters seemingly straight out of a carnival freak show. Each character exploration on the series was an event. Each episodic viewing, for this Sci-Fi Fanatic, was like a ticket into the freak show itself, in that each story was a weird, alluring, mesmerizing odyssey populated by wonderful performances.
Those select casting turns began with the diminutive, but big and amazing, Michael J. Anderson. The run of character actors is noted below and the list of extraordinary actors in this cavalcade of wonder is nothing short of a real treat---a genuine TV delight for mature audiences. Perhaps more importantly it works as a literate, thoughtful pilgrimage for a vast array of castaways in search of meaning and significance. It's like an old, dusty book come to life.
Watching Carnivale, Season One, Milfay, is like visiting one. It's fantastical, magical, wonderful and strange. The HBO series lasted just two seasons and it's understandable why something so stirring, extraordinary and yet real affected viewers so deeply when some yearned for a more positive escape. It's darkness permeates the scenery and this difficult period in American history would no doubt leave many unsettled. It's dreamy, fantastic imagery floats into the senses but is at once alarming as it is alluring.
They just don't make series like this very often. As noted earlier, perhaps The Leftovers is one of the most cerebrally challenging narratives since Carnivale.
For this viewer HBO's Carnivale was a compelling viewing experience. Following this group of damaged freaks and misfits that so desperately seemed to seek a place to fit in and belong reminded me that we are all flawed. None of us are perfect. We all have our shortcomings and this meticulously cast group reminds us of that.
Carnivale is like The X-Files, Season Two, Episode 20, Humbug (in which dwarf actor Anderson also guest-starred) played out in on almost ethereal, other-worldly level. Carnivale has its humor, but it also successfully mines a much more somber, darker tone of a sad era and marries that to the mysteries of the carnival while successfully investing in the humanity that lived it.
Actor Michael J. Anderson fronts the series as Samson. He also guested in The X-Files' Humbug and David Lynch's Twin Peaks. He's a fascinating actor beyond being a riveting force as small people go. Though he just so happens to have been selected for carnival-themed stories, he's a riveting presence on screen. In fact, he was paving the way and making a name for actors who were height-challenged long before the great Peter Dinklage though not as early as actor Kenny Baker (Star Wars, Time Bandits). It seems stereotypical to see the compelling Anderson tagged with circus tales both here in Carnivale and in The X-Files, but he's a delightful performer who relishes in the oddities to behold. He brings the magic to the performance. While not as prolific or as prestigious in perception as Dinklage, for a period Anderson was easily the best in the business bringing big things in small packages. Carnivale was indeed one of his finest career moments.
Carnivale was and still is truly bizarre in the world of television in the big scope of things in conveying its overarching themes, tales and mythology of good versus evil. Such concepts are rarely portrayed with such imagery and grim-faced reality combined with fantasy in such a poetic and literary fashion. True Blood, Sons Of Anarchy, Game Of Thrones. These are all tremendous shows, but none handle the mythological, existential and spiritual concepts in play with as much grace and disturbing eloquence as Carnivale. The alluring Carnivale feels strange and weird and out of place as much as the heavenly voice of Lana Del Rey on pop radio today. Like the wounded, pained and invitingly beautiful voice of Del Rey that whisks us away to the torch, sultry voice of 1950s or 1960s America, Carnivale too, delivers us to the spirit of a dusty history that shouldered great pains and trials of a damaged nation. In both there is ugliness and beauty.
The powerful Carnivale offers viewers a window into another time and another place. Like passengers on a train or, travelling carnies, we are offered a window to this world and to ordinary yet equally extraordinary lives.
In one powerful scene we witness Ben Hawkins, a healer, offer peace to a mother unable to let her dead baby go. Ultimately, the child is buried and put to rest. But the scene is remarkably powerful and viewers become passengers in the experience as events unfold. Carnivale deftly and beautifully transports us to places and people through the eyes of Hawkins.
Actor Stahl, as Hawkins, is incredibly strong in the role. I had such little confidence in the actor with only his appearance in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003; of which I was never terribly impressed, but later had a new appreciation for) as my barometer for his potential. I had no idea he could handle the subtleties and nuances and weight of such a role particularly after seeing the aforementioned film. In Carnivale, Stahl is the perfect lead for the series and perfect fit for Ben Hawkins. He embodies the character and delivers him in all of his unpolished, unsophisticated believability.
The series is heavy with depression-era reality, but enhanced by small fantastical touches in the way Lost (2004-2010) dazzled us. In Carnivale, people with gifts are urged to awaken and delight in the magic. One carnival actor tells actor Nick Stahl's Ben Hawkins, "The people in these towns---they're asleep. All day at work, at home, sleepwalkers. We wake them up."
While its a bizarre, offbeat series, once you accept the rhythms of Carnivale you too will experience all of the beauty rendered on screen here. As a viewer I was awakened to something truly inspired, unusual, deeper, more gratifying than most television. It's no wonder Carnivale never had a chance, despite devoted fans. At the very least it managed to capture the imagination for two seasons. It's something of a miracle Carnivale got the green light considering some shows never get that chance and this one found a bit of good fortune rewarding all of Knauf's hard work. Some shows drone on endlessly for seasons on end and offer very little, though that's entirely relative.
Carnivale is more than a one note act by a circus carnie. The more cerebral viewer won't be able to look away once you walk in its world. Carnivale swirls with colorful characters at a dark time that challenge free will and destiny while great power manifests within two unlikely people paralleling a mythic battle between good and evil embodied by Stahl's Ben Hawkins and Clancy Brown's Brother Justin.
The show was created, produced and written by Daniel Knauf in an extraordinary stroke of genius with executive production by none other than Ronald D. Moore in one of the most literary and imaginative works of his career's involvement.
It's like classic literature come to life---a strange, mystical, both beautiful and bleak, sometimes unseemly odyssey. It is an exploration of the heart and soul of ordinary people of a different time and place laden with sadness and moments of joy. Television rarely gets this audacious.
Director: Rodrigo Garcia. Writer: Daniel Knauf.
Ben Hawkins-connected characters: Nick Stahl (Ben Hawkins, healer)/ Michael J. Anderson (Samson, co-manager of Carnival answers to Management)/ Tim DeKay (Clayton "Jonesy" Jones, head of roustabouts) / Clea DuVall (Sofie Agnesh Bojakshiya, daughter of fortuneteller tarot reading act)/ Diane Salinger (Apollonia Agnesh Bojakshiya, mother of fortuneteller tarot reading act)/ Patrick Bauchau (Professor Ernst Lodz, blind mentalist)/ Debra Christofferson (Lila, the bearded lady of Brussels)/ Toby Huss (Felix "Stumpy" Dreifuss, Cootch show family)/ Cynthia Ettinger (Rita Sue Deifuss)/ Carla Gallo (Libby Dreifuss)/ Amanda Aday (Dora Mae Dreifuss)/ Adrienne Barbeau (Ruthie, the snake charmer and barker)/ Brian Turk (Gabriel, the strong man)/ John Fleck (Gecko).
Brother Justin Crowe-connected characters: Clancy Brown (Brother Justin Crowe)/ Amy Madigan (Iris Crowe, Justin's sister)/ Robert Knepper (Tommy Dolan)/ Ralph Waite (Reverend Norman Balthus, Justin's mentor).
Characters represented in dreams of both: John Savage (Henry Scudder)/ Michael Massee (Lucius Belyakov, the Russian Soldier).