Carnivale is an unusual beast in the world of television; airing between 2003 and 2005 and set in the American dust bowl during the great depression era but the events of that time are only lightly touched upon. Instead the show focuses on a travelling circus, a priest and a supernatural struggle between good and evil. Originally the show was planned to run for six seasons, with each "pair" of seasons telling a tale in the trilogy and while cancellation resulted in just the one full story being told. This story is still an absolute dooz and warrants attention.
Carinvale is a deeply distinctive show; every aspect, from it's look all the way to it's music speaks as an unusual and striking piece of work. The show tells a series of self contained stories in each episode combined with and over-reaching arc told between two separate and distinct plot lines. The first of which deals with the carnivale itself and the one of the lead character Ben's (Nick Stahl) experiences with the travelling folk, the second deals with a deeply religious man - Brother Justin Crowe, who is played with a high level of competency and skill by Clancy Brown.
Over the course of the two seasons we come to know more about Ben and the people he joins and starts travelling with in the carnivale; there is Samson (Michael J. Anderson ), the diminutive ringleader and nominal head of the troupe. But he answers to the Management, a mysterious individual who lives entirely inside a caravan and may or may not exist - many suspect Samson created Management as a fiction and in truth he is the management. There's the snake charmer Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), Tim DeKay is Jonesy the co-manager, Patrick Bauchau is Professor Lodz - blind mentalist of great ability and then there is the catatonic seeress Apolloina and her daughter Sofie (Clea DuVall) who reads and interprets for her - but there are also a host of other characters involved in the carnivale, both as stars and as reoccurring guest stars.
The cast in Brother Crowe's story is smaller, mostly centered around himself, his sister Iris (Amy Madigan), a second priest Reverand Normand Balthas (Ralph Waite), Eleanor McGill (K Callan) and Tommy Dolan (Robert Knepper) a local radio. We learn much of his life, his gradual discovery of the power inside him and his acceptance of his position. Clancy gives an exceptional performance as Brother Crowe, avoiding many of the stereotypical aspects his character could have shown and instead giving us a magnetic and interesting man who draws the viewer in and carries them along for the ride.
The visuals of the show are as stunning, if not more so, than the plot and the authenticity of the series. Carnivale is a show which looks the part, you can almost taste the ever present dust and dryness which cloys everything in some scenes. The costumes are great, the sets are just stunning and everything feels very real. Apart from the strong supernatural bent to the show this is something which paints a very real picture of the 1930s Dust Bowl existence.
There's a great deal of depth to the show; much of the mythology in the show is quite profound and subtle at times. It's not entirely clear as to who stands for what and you only find out as time progresses over the two seasons. Gradually the meta-plot moves forward and the show brings events to a head in it's final few episodes. Resulting in a satisfying collision of plot lines. The show is also very authentic outside of it's supernatual areas, and has been praised for this authenticity by experts. In some ways it is a distant kin to Deadwood, there are parallels which can be drawn between the two shows - especially in the attention to detail and authentic nature of the shows.
Now there is one large warning which has to be delivered when talking about Carnivale and I touched on it earlier, the cancellation of the show. Because this project was conceived and designed as a long term story, there will be certain threads left hanging at the end of the second season and never resolved. You'll just have to steel yourself against the mysteries and accept that not everything is explained. In truth the cancellation is a shame, because while Carnivale does have it's flaws it also has a very unique and gripping vision. There is also some hope it will be finished in some form as Daniel Knauf has not yet given up trying. Unfortunately HBO still own the rights to the show and are refusing to do anything with them, and considering the climate of the media currently, they are unlikely to do so.
This warning aside, Carinvale is still a piece which is worth watching thanks to it's unusual style and unique vision.