Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Prefect Slog
Here’s one I watched earlier. It’s been canned now, of course, TV execs always keen to prove that old adage that ‘all good things come to an end’, so its another of those shows with a disappointingly short lifespan – and one of those where, once you know it’s been curtailed before its time, you wonder if it’s actually worth following through to what now suffices as the end. But hey, I gave others – Firefly, Dark Angel, Tru Calling – a whirl, so I can certainly accord this one the same courtesy. Some while ago I was lucky enough to have a friend send me Series Two on disc (thanks mate - you know who you are) but haven’t yet seen any of that second and concluding (sniff) season – other things like, oh, getting married and such obliged TV to take a back seat – but I was also lucky enough to have another friend give me Series One on DVD for a birthday present (thanks, mate – you know who you are). So I figured, given the lengthy interval, I’d best take advantage of my good luck and rewatch the first series before continuing into the second and – we hope – finding out what it’s all about.
So, what is it all about? If you’re anticipating any clear and definitive answers, I don’t have the foggiest. For all I know, I may not even have them when I get to the premature finale. But for the purposes of this blog, I should be all right if I just limit myself to what I do know…
It’s a traditional tale of Good vs. Evil. Okay, it’s set in 1930s America, in the heart of the Great Depression, a land additionally blasted by dust storms of Biblical proportions. This kid escapes a chain gang, and he’s come home to an Oklahoma dirt farm just in time to see his mother die and his shack about to be torn down, but he’s ‘fortunate’ enough to be taken in by a passing carnival. Dark and if not actively sinister then definitely very moody forces are at work behind the Carnivale’s curtains, where a deep mystery lurks that holds the secret to the kid’s past and will have a profound impact on his future, and - what do you know! - all the best freaks are here!
It’s slow. There is no rollercoaster at this carney and it is never going to conjure the same excitement of a Doctor Who opening as we hurtle through the vortex to that theme tune. Then again, it’s never going to produce the same level of disappointment either. It’s slow – that bears repeating – but it’s my belief it rewards patience. Subtlety takes time. Care and attention has been paid to every frame, every detail, and it deserves the same attention from its audience – it commanded mine. In place of the rollercoaster, what it offers is a meandering (and dusty) truck ride through a bleak and unnerving (not to say disturbing) Twilight Zone – there’s the sign post up ahead! – that takes its tone from its setting and is presented with such a complete and absolute sense of its period that you might be forgiven for thinking the production design crew had to have mastered time travel.
For the duration of the episode, you are there – whether you want to be or not. And you just know they went to phenomenal expense creating something this desolate.
Sadly, probably one of the key reasons it got canned and now that I’m on the brink of embarking on Series Two there is that inevitable nervousness as to whether or not things will be sufficiently wrapped up to satisfy. But against that there’s an instinctive feeling that, no matter what, the journey will have been worthwhile.
In essence, it’s a fairly simple story. The idea is that with every generation there’s born one agent for Good and one for Evil – and through the course of Series One those two agents are each waking up to their birthright, their lives only (so far) brushing in nightmares – although they are of course fated to do battle. Fair enough. I expect there’s a bit more to it than that, but even if – come the ‘end’ – the revelations turn out to be as impoverished as my cynical side suspects Lost will ultimately, eventually prove, the richness of the Carnivale story is in the telling. It’s got Bradbury’s love of detail as well as his fascination with spooky fairgrounds. It’s Something Really Wicked This Way Comes.
Aside from the landscape through which we travel, the show invites us to take this journey in the company of characters who are at least as compelling as the underlying mystery of it all, every single one of them played with a conviction befitting the production.
I can’t say I like many of them. But I like that I don’t like them – it’s that kind of show. Ben Hawkins is the, um, ‘hero’, rejecting powers that come with a heavy price and he’s one of the more sympathetic characters as a result. But I can’t say I especially like the fellow. Justin, the priest and Ben’s opposite number, is a truly horrific creation, and Clancy Brown delivers such a powerful performance I genuinely fear him and what he might do next. And his sister, Iris, is this deceptively meek and mild Lady Macbeth who scares me just as much in her own quiet way. While the Carnivale itself is populated by a motley crew of freaks and failures, a collection of characters all vividly drawn in different shades of black. Samson is a shyster and a half, brilliantly played by Michael J Anderson, and last seen - by me - in Humbug, the similarly ‘freaky’ but tongue in cheek X Files episode from Season 3. Jonesy is a knee-capped ex-baseball player, and something of an emotional cripple to boot. Sophie’s the young old maid, desperate and trapped in her trailer and her life with her telepathic relationship with her mute, motionless mum who manages to give me the creeps while lying perfectly still. Lodz is the exquisitely creepy blind man who sees far more than can be good for anyone, who’s dangerously manipulative when it comes to the matter of Ben Hawkins and uses and abuses his bearded girlfriend, Lila. Felix, aka Stumpy, is the sleazy entertainer who fronts the strip show and pimps for his wife and daughters. Add to that Adrienne Barbeau as the snake charmer, a gay lizard man and the playful Siamese twins and you begin to get the idea. And that’s without going into some of the sordid ways of some of the irregular characters we have the displeasure of meeting along the way. Most episodes I don’t know whether to watch from the edge of my seat or behind the sofa and against the apparent ‘play-it-safe’ policy of New Who, there could probably be no starker contrast. But don’t mistake me – this doesn’t belong in Doctor Who, although it’s the sort of thing that might have worked in a DW novel, albeit a controversial one, back when they used to cater for grown-ups.
To say it’s brave TV is an understatement – it’s a huge risk, and on standard network TV it would have failed probably somewhere in the development or pitching stage. But as one studio exec said on one of my ER DVD extras, it’s often the things that seem risky that are the biggest successes. Commercially, that’s not going to be the case for Carnivale – and realistically, it was never going to be. The fact that it got prematurely dropped from the HBO schedules though is no reflection of its quality. Some canned goods have class.


Stuart Douglas said...

A mate sent me both series but RL has gotten in the way of watching it - must put aside an hour ro two (probably at about 2.30 in the morning) to start watching it.

It sounds...interesting.

SAF said...

It's certainly... different :)

Not one for the kids. But 2:30 am? You know things are getting out of hand when you're cutting into your sleep time just to fit all this telly in :)

Anonymous said...

No Stuart - do not watch it at 2:30 in the morning, you will NOT sleep. This is a programme that gets under your skin and then tries to burrow its way out.

I've seen all the way to the end of Series 2 and as a word of warning , it keeps getting more and more disturbing right up to the end. The last episode does sort of wrap things up; but also leaves things open for future series (there were originally going to be 6 series going right up until July 16th 1945).

The programme was canned not because of small audiences, but because it was extremely expensive to shoot. Mind you HBO seems to be having something of a nervous breakdown of late, cancelling its most acclaimed series, 'Deadwood' being just one more example of its bad judgement.

There is a hint at http://www.mediavillage.com/jmentr/2006/02/09/jmer-02-09-06/ that we might see more of 'Carnivale', HBO are considering a movie or miniseries that could take the story further.

Anonymous said...

Oops never hit 'Publish' until you're sure...

What makes Justin Crowe such a terrifying character is that the first five or six episodes set him up as a pillar of the community who undergoes a terrible trauma. the audience can't help but sympathise with him, which makes the outcome all the more horrific. Crowe's based, to some extent, on the 1930s radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin who used his weekly radio show to poison the minds of millions with his rampant antisemitism.

And I think you've left out the creepiest character of all (though Apollonia does come close) - Management. That is the scariest curtain in creation.