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Carnivàle: Series One (2003)
Developed by Daniel Knauf

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Carnivàle is set in 1930s' dust bowl America and focuses loosely on two characters; Ben a farmhand and former convict, and Brother Justin a priest. Both have strange powers and both need to come to terms with them because one of them represents the light and the other the dark, and a great battle is coming that will decide the fate of mankind.

This is made by HBO and the production values are incredibly high. From the grainy footage of zeppelins and dust in the credits sequence to the way people speak and look, this series looks magnificent. The creators of this series also show a knack for creating iconic imagery that is reminiscent of such self-consciously iconic genre films as the Indiana Jones trilogy. However, despite this series combining Spielberg's knack for memorable visuals and Lynch's gifts for the weird and mysterious, this is a series that is decidedly uneven, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in the characterisation.

For every Brother Justin struggling to reconcile his bizarre powers with his desire to do the Lord's work and every drug-addled blind wizard and nymphomaniacal bearded lady there are characters that are decidedly less well fleshed out. Most notably, this includes the central character Ben who spends the entire series refusing to learn about his powers and sulking (played by Nick Stahl of Terminator 3 fame). Similarly many of the carnival workers are drawn in very broad strokes despite their love triangles and problems easily accounting for a third of the series' running time. The unevenness of the writing leads to the pacing of this show seeming positively glacial. The entire series feels like it's an extended pilot as we don't really learn anything about Ben and very little about Justin as the series ends, with Ben willing to finally learn and Justin having reconciled his faith and his powers. The relative lack of quality of the more mundane plots means that by the end of the series one feels quite frustrated and annoyed. After 12 episodes you've not learned much about anything but you've watched hours of a crippled baseball player trying to sort his love life out. At times it's like some weird anti-matter version of Dawson's Creek where instead of pretty young middle-class people having uninteresting rows it's Depression-era freaks, whores and criminals.

When the series dwells on the fantastical elements it's systematically strong both visually and dramatically but these moments frequently seem few and far between. The most successful episodes are those where the carnival as a whole is confronted by the weirdness of the world. Most notably the episode Babylon featuring strange miners and even stranger mine shafts.

The way plots are handled is actually reminiscent of The X-Files when series-long plot arcs were still in their infancy in genre TV and little bits of information were passed down from time to time while the bulk of the action concentrated on something completely different. We're a long way from the absorbing melodrama of season four of Angel where virtually nothing apart from the main plot arc was dealt with or the subtle interweaving and complexity of the new Battlestar Galactica. If I have one fear for this series it's that, like The X-Files, there's no real plan where anything is going. Chris Carter made up the alien plot arc and stretched it out over nine years, it never really made any sense and in the end it turned out that Mulder's sister had been kidnapped by elves anyway, so the whole basis for the series was a bit of a waste of time really. I'd hate to be sitting here five years from now trying to make sense of what the hell is going on in Carnivàle. The phenomenon of the teasing plot-arc that makes viewers speculate about what's going on while in reality the writers are just throwing in weird stuff and making it up as they go along is one of the most hideous crimes in TV writing; it makes the series appear interesting by engaging the same intellectual muscles a whodunit does, but it turns out you've been trying to make sense of events that don't make any sense at all. A bit like trying to construct an Ikea wardrobe without instructions and with a few random bits of wood and screws.

I gave Carnivàle an average rating because of how uneven it is. At times it is fantastic but at other times I found myself reaching for the fast-forward button on my remote. On the basis of reports I've heard from the US, the second season's pace is much improved and the fantastical comes much more to the front, so it's quite possible that when seen as a whole the slow pace of the first season actually works dramatically but, when taken in isolation, this first series shows a great deal of potential, though it simply doesn't compare with other top quality examples of genre TV.

In fact, a glance at Knauf's IMDb listing reveals a relatively inexperienced writer. His only major writing credits are an unsuccessful Armand Assante film about a blind gunfighter and a handful of episodes of unsuccessful TV series. I also noted that Ronald D. Moore was involved in a number of episodes and his great experience and talent as a producer should helpfully make the most of Knauf's talent. Carnivàle has a lot of potential but it's not quite there yet.
Carnivale

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