Bowl Passion Play
by Ana Marie Cox, In These Times (January 19,
The best evidence for the existence of what
the right likes to call the liberal media elite
is not to be found in books such as Bernard
Goldberg's Arrogance: Rescuing America From
the Media Elite. Nor can you really see it in
the meaningfully arched eyebrow of Peter Jennings.
It is not on the editorial page of the New York
Times; you won't find it in the spacious corner
office where Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter
carries on his crusade against both the Bush
administration and New York's smoking ban.
No, if you're looking
for a case study in Hollywood's contempt and
condescension toward what I suppose we must
call "ordinary Americans," well, you'll
have to wait for the reruns, because HBO has
just finished the first season of its Depression-era
Set in an America of
downtrodden but hardworking (and picturesque)
folk, the show's aesthetic pedigree seemed promising:
It has the look of a Walker Evans photograph
and a soundtrack reminiscent of the Anthology
of American Folk Music. The plot, on the other
hand, feels as though it stemmed from an aborted
collaboration between David Lynch and Andy Griffith.
At once inscrutable and utterly familiar, this
anachronism-filled fantasy of a Dust Bowl passion
play -- complete with references to the Crusades
-- wound up being nothing more than Little Matrix
on the Prairie.
The show centers on a
never completely consummated spiritual struggle
between Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), a chain-gang
refugee turned carny roustabout, and Brother
Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), an earnest but
fiery evangelical preacher. According to HBO,
these characters "find themselves wrenched
from their lives to realize that the world they
thought they knew -- the tenuous, prosaic reality
shared by humankind -- is actually a chessboard
upon which is played the ancient conflict between
Light and Darkness."
If you have any familiarity
at all with the charges leveled against "blue
America," as the media dubbed America's
urban (and Gore-voting) areas in the 2004 election,
you won't be surprised to know that it's the
preacher who represents Darkness. Ben, the kind-hearted
working-class regular Joe, can bring kittens
back to life and mend broken bones with a touch.
Brother Justin has powers, too, but they are
considerably darker -- he makes a thief vomit
coins and, as a child, he once killed a man
with his mind.
But this literal demonization
of fundamentalists is one of the few overt touches
of "liberal elite" politics, the kind
of thing the Bernie Goldbergs of the world can
point to with confident rage. (The not-quite-believable
"Do Me" feminism of a young female
carny performer is another.) The show's true
political character lies under this politically
correct surface, and it is at least as condescending
and retrograde as conservative commentators
want to believe the left always is.
For all its pretensions
to religious allegory -- some stigmata here,
some wandering in the wilderness there -- the
show's underlying message turns out to be essentially
the opposite of spiritual belief: fatalism.
Though Ben does a lot of hemming and hawing
about how "Only God can decide when to
take life and when to give it," the plot
of "Carnivale" winds tighter and tighter
around him -- taking from him the ability to
decide for himself whether to use "The
Gift," even as he becomes godlike in using
Brother Justin's story
arcs in a similar, but more disturbing, manner.
At first, he sees his ability to conjure forth
visions of individuals' sins and wreak revenge
upon the ungodly (a town father is a pederast;
a corrupt city councilman has a heart attack)
as a sign of God's blessing. He was, after all,
doing the Lord's work -- running an orphanage
and ministering to the destitute. But he was
born bad, you see, and like a reluctant anti-Christ,
he, too, must be punished by fate until he finally
accepts his destiny and starts doing evil like
the obedient pawn he is . . . that, in the universe
of "Carnivale," we all are.
Ironically, when Brother
Justin finally becomes the minion of darkness
he had been all along, he takes the form of
Ann Coulter. Sadly, he does not become a screamingly
blonde, mini-skirted pundette (that would have
been far more entertaining than anything else
the show has done), but he does give a thundering
sermon about "the intellectual elite"
and decadent, Godless Hollywood. Really. If
one is looking for a way to portray the existence
of evil in the 1930s, there are certainly heftier
examples than Pat Robertson's forefathers.
Whereas HBO's other showcase
series -- "Six Feet Under," "The
Sopranos" and, especially, "The Wire"
-- offer nuanced, occasionally hopeful views
of class and morality, "Carnivale"
gives viewers a world where individuals have
little power over their fate and whose moral
balance is eternally fixed: Every good action
has an equal and opposite evil reaction, or,
as it is often put, "Every time you give
life, you must also take it away." This
is not a progressive understanding of the human
struggle; it isn't even modern -- the Greeks
had more lee-way than the characters of "Carnivale."
The show's patina of liberal elitism, then,
confirms the right's worst stereotypes even
as it does little good to actually advance a
liberal argument or worldview.
HBO has renewed the series,
suggesting that perhaps there are in fact dark
forces at work in the land. I'm not sure whose
side they're on.