Movie-Hype (#702) – Carnivàle
I admit it. I was slow to the HBO party, due partly to the fact that I didn't have HBO, but also because so many people talked about the HBO shows like they were the gods' gift to humankind. That kind of pretentiousness is usually best left to Prometheus, or at least Stephen Colbert. So I abstained.
I come before you now, humbly repentant before the gods, and submit myself to their amercements. Brother, I have learned from the wickedness of my ways.
Years from now, I believe historians will look back on this decade as the golden age of television as a bona fide art form, and nowhere more so than the visionaries at Home Box Office. In the past few years they have given us four of the top ten—perhaps four of the top five—shows ever made. I realize television is less than 60 years old, but for one network to do this in a span of five years? Amazing.
The Sopranos you know of, and any review of mine would be superfluous. Deadwood I have written of and to continue to sing its praises. We will get to the fourth by and by, but another time. For now I want to talk about a show that didn't get a tenth of the coverage of the others; it may be the least talked-about HBO show of the last decade. But it's also pretty much my favorite.
I speak of Carnivàle.
As I finished the credits on the second (and final) season I couldn't help a deep sorrow. The main reason: for ratings reasons HBO has taken the unusual step (for them) of cancelling Carnivàle only one third of the way through the planned six seasons. But too my sadness centered on what I had just witnessed: something extraordinary, unparalleled in the history of American Television (or Cinema, for that matter), a show so astonishingly rich and complex that it would likely take a complete 24 episode re-viewing before the puzzle pieces started locking in, and yet for all the hosannas I felt in my heart I knew for a certainty that I would probably never get very many people to take that journey and watch it.
As much as it frustrates me, I understand why Carnivàle never got the wider audience of a Sopranos or Six Feet Under. Without sneer in my voice I speak humbly but truth: few would understand the show, and fewer of those would like it. Would that I could make you a part of that small select group. They are out there, and they are fanatics. And brother, do they have cause.
Carnivàle is the story of a traveling Carnival, making its way through the Southwestern circuit of major-depression 1930s America. That sentence alone must give us pause to consider. We've never had a realistic portrayal life in a traveling carnival. We've never had a realistic portrayal of what life was like for Dust Bowl migrant Okies out there on the not-so-fruited Plain.
(Chances are you're not as well versed on the Dust Bowl as you should be. Worst ecological disaster in US history; ramifications felt for decades. Do yourself a favor and brush up on your knowledge with a handy Wikipedia article on The Dust Bowl.)
Don't get me wrong: I loved THE GRAPES OF WRATH, but back then Hollywood couldn't make things as miserable as they really were. People went to movies to escape their lives, and the movie came out in 1940, way too early to start telling the truth about things. Carnivàle sets out to get every small detail right. There is so much dust! (At times I felt like I was watching a Ken Burns documentary.) The show's creators took pains to make everyone and everything dirty, virtually all the time. (At this point OCD people might want to stop reading, as it occurs to me that watching Carnivàle might drive them nuts.) There is more dust and dirt than you've ever seen in any television show. Ever. It never stops. In a way the dirt is almost a character. Another thing the show did was go out of their way to cast people who look like they might actually have lived in the 1930s in those circumstances. Not ugly people necessarily, but plain, or at least unadorned. Hey: I love how the CSIs and NYPD Blues and any number of others fills their female roles with hot chicks, but they do sacrifice a note of realism. In Carnivàle you feel like you might have run into these people. (In a weird and very cool side-point, the plain chicks actually get disproportionately hot as the series goes on. Maybe it's because you're not viewing them as eye-candy and so you fall for their characters, or there's no competition. Not sure, but I love that phenomenon.)
If Carnivàle was only a show about migrant workers and the conditions of their lives I might very well recommend it for that alone. But there's another level: the Carnival.
I've always been fascinated by Carnivals, especially back then when they travelled together, almost as a big extended family. I'm intrigued by the romance of "The Carnie Code," whatever that means, and it warms my heart to know that in a time before people were sensitive of others' feelings there was a place for odd-balls and outcasts to belong. (Sometimes I wish I'd lived back then so I could have been in a travelling carnival and belonged somewhere too.)
Carnivàle has every act you can imagine. They have the rides. They have the strong man. They have a woman who dances with snakes. They have the Bearded Lady and Goat Boy. They have a blind seer and a catatonic prophetess who uses tarot cards. There's even a family that dances the cootch.
(Don't know what dancing the cootch means? I bet you can guess. Yup, you're right. What's so interesting about that is that the mother and daughters do erotic strip-tease and then turn tricks after the show that the father sets up and this is all seen as normal as anything in a travelling carnival. And this was actually normal. I guess times being as hard as they were a family did what they could to get by, and if you didn't have a beard to offer the carnival, you offered what you could.)
I'm not beginning to adequately describe how endlessly fascinating the carnival is, but if that was the show I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in a totally unique look at an under-reported part of our history. But there's one more facet to Carnivàle that elevates it to pantheon status, that elite group of shows that lay claim to the best ever.
At the beginning of the very first episode Samson the Dwarf (more on him in a minute) tells us that:
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...and great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then. Nobility. And unimaginable cruelty. And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason.
Now, no doubt you (as I when I first saw it) have very little idea what he's talking about. But admit it: you're at least curious what's going on. On top of everything Carnivàle brings to the table there is an epic Celestial war going on through human avatars. These chosen avatars—one of Light, one of Darkness—have power; power they have no idea they possess, power they have no idea how to control. They also have destiny, a fate shaped for them by those of their kind who came before.
Are you starting to get intrigued?
[IF YOU'RE ALREADY IN AND WANT TO SKIP ALL KNOWLEDGE, MILD AS IT MAY BE, SKIP TO THE NEXT SET OF ALL CAPS IN BRACKETS]
On the one side is Ben Hawkins (wonderfully underplayed by Nick Stahl), who joins the carnival when they just happen to drop by as he's burying his mother. Ben is 19, scared, uneducated, and on the run from a chain-gang he escaped. Ben has a lot of growing up to do, Ladies and Gentlemen, and this ain't no afternoon special. Ben's power is his ability to heal anything, to give life back to people and things in all forms. What Ben doesn't know—and this isn't a secret to us so don't get mad—is that for every ounce of energy Ben gives someone, someone else has to lose a corresponding amount. I want you to think about what kind of burden that would place on someone who's supposedly a creature of Light (which Ben is also blissfully unaware of when this all starts).
On the other side of the coin is Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown). Most of you are familiar with Clancy Brown as the head guard in Shawshank. I'm here to tell you that you had no idea how awesome an actor this dude was. It's unreal. Brother Justin is a man of the cloth in California, a quiet man who lives with his sister and presides over a small congregation of migrant workers. Brother Justin discovers he has the ability to make people see "visions," a gift that simply cannot go unused. This storyline is separate from the carnival one for a time, slowly merging as the scope of the mythos becomes clear.
[END PLOT POINTS]
They are the two main characters but by no means are they it. In the HBO tradition Carnivàle is truly an ensemble show, littered with fine actors giving the performances of their careers in perfectly casted roles. It's worth mentioning Clea DuVall (a girl you know but may not recognize the name) who showed up on Heroes as an FBI agent earlier. For you older readers it might interest you that Adrienne Barbeau shows up to show us that she actually can act, and quite well. (And she brought along her two biggest crowd-pleasers as well, and yes: you get to see them.)
The guy who makes it all work is Samson (played by Michael J Anderson). It would be incorrect to say that you forget Samson is a dwarf. It's more just that it doesn't matter. I don't mean that in a PC-sense. I mean that Samson is pretty much unstoppable. He doesn't have magical powers or anything; he's just much cooler than you. Samson runs the carnival by the force of his will, and treats the people in his employ almost as wayward children. He's gruff with them, but somehow conveys affection too. He's not above kicking a few asses if need be, but would go to the wall to protect his people.
Look, I've talked about Al Swearengen from Deadwood, and everyone knows Tony Soprano. I'm on record for my love of Jack Bauer and Greg House. All of those are fantastic characters. But the truth is they wouldn't really fit outside their shows. The shows were designed for them and they thrive there. Samson, on the other hand, could literally go on any program in television and fit right in. He'd kick up any sitcom with his wry sense of humor, and go toe to toe with any actor in any drama. He's literally the perfect character. I would watch any show or movie they made about his character or with his character in it. He's that good.
What really makes Carnivàle a tough sell is that they tell the story incredibly slowly. But—and this is important—THIS IS IN NO WAY A CRITICISM! That the storytelling is slow is only so you can appreciate the characters, their lives, their troubles. We take our time going through the towns; much like travel was slow back then. We savor each moment, not in a hurry to rush on to the next. If you were one of those people who got pissed that not enough people were getting wacked on The Sopranos, don't even bother. Carnivàle is in absolutely no hurry. They have volumes and volumes of back-story to explain with this whole avatar light/darkness thing, and they are in no hurry to reveal it.
The other point honesty compels me to admit is that you'll be frustrated at the end that they couldn't have finished more. The end of season two was slotted to reveal much, but its' clearly only one third of what they were doing. My view is that it's better to get a piece of perfection, even if it's not the whole thing, than none at all.
Well, I've gone on for too long here, so I must get out while I still have readers left. I don't know how to recommend Carnivàle. It's simply not going to be something everyone gets or likes, and I have to accept that. But for what it's worth, Carnivàle is my favorite HBO show ever, and if you value my opinion at all, that has to be worth something.