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Dust Bowl Passion Play
by Ana Marie Cox, In These Times (January 19, 2004)

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 caricature, "Carnivale."

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 it.

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.