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Come Join The Carnivale
by Jeremy Mahadevan, Asia Africa Intelligence Wire (October 10, 2004)

HBO's Carnivale opens on Astro tonight. Jeremy Mahadevan has a sneak preview of what you can expect in this mystical drama set in the American Heartland.

Movies have played a major role in shaping the face of television programming. Through shows like Twin Peaks, masterminded by cinema auteur David Lynch which provided a serial storyline, today's television casting reveals that silver screen names no longer see the glass screen as a diluter of status.

Somewhere in this crossover from film to television is a company that mixes the two media - HBO, or Home Box Office. The name says it all - HBO is where big screen meets small. Not surprisingly, HBO's own shows are heavily influenced by cinema. A disproportionate number of daring, highly- acclaimed shows these days come from its stable. Cases in point include Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Into this successful setting comes the curious new HBO serial, Carnivale. We mentioned Twin Peaks earlier because it's become de rigueur to say something about David Lynch in articles about Carnivale, since the show has similar overtones to his iconic early-90s experiment.

Despite this, the comparison is slightly unfair, since Carnivale seems to provide a more viewer-friendly balance between the cabalistic and the straightforward.

Carnivale tells two parallel tales. The first depicts a travelling carnival in Depression-era America, inhabited by a variety of strange characters with special powers, all assembled by the carnival's shadowy Management (who is/are never depicted), apparently with some plan in mind.

Along the way they pick up a young man, Ben Hawkins, who carries with him a mighty secret and a power to match.

The second tale is that of Brother Justin Crowe, a preacher based in California who begins having visions of a mission that, while apparently divine, may easily be demonic as well. Crowe himself develops terrifying abilities that intimidate others into going along with his plans, most of which have admirable intentions but are executed with a ruthless will.

At some point Crowe and Hawkins will cross paths, and all indications point to literally apocalyptic developments.
Carnivale's cast of `freaks' is satisfyingly comprehensive and well fleshed-out. Not once in the first two episodes do they degenerate into the tired `it's us freaks against the world' plot devices that are so prevalent in other works about outcasts.

The show also has plenty of religious and mystical symbolism, which is carefully utilised on the whole. The religious aspects are far more obvious in Crowe's story - probably because his view of the world is so highly charged with religion.

On the other hand, the carnival is a place where faith extends as far as the source of the next wad of money. On the whole, while this show bravely tackles issues that are otherwise sidestepped by modern TV shows, it does so in a manner that examines issues from unexpected angles, mixing and matching so that nothing remains as it seems.

Some symbolism appears unsubtle (the avian names Crowe and Hawkins, for example), but based on the first and second episodes, there may yet be inversions and unexpected twists involved even with things that initially seem clear-cut.

The plot itself is, on the whole, a mystery story. Little details are sprinkled across the episodes, and viewers are left to figure things out for themselves. The show pledges an epic plot with some sort of grand denouement. However, whether it can deliver will be known only as the story unfolds.

Previous attempts at epic televised storylines, particularly in the sci-fi/fantasy line, such as Taken or The X-Files, have deflated on their initial promises.

Also, shows like The Practice and Sex and the City, which, while valuable in their own right, have created a climate that might be a little hostile to old-school `good guy vs. bad guy' ideas.

Thus, it is interesting to see whether a premise, which deals with the fundamentals of good vs evil such as that found in Carnivale, would go down well with these same viewers.

No matter, viewers will get to see this show for a good two seasons. (The impact of Carnivale on the American viewing public has been minimal when compared to shows such as The Sopranos.) Still, all of Carnivale's five Emmys, scooped this year, were for technical details, signifying the high production values of the series. Despite turning out solid performances, scripts and overall presentation, the actors, writers and directors received no accolades.

It appears the stigma against fantasy shows is still in place, and it will take time for the Lord of the Rings renaissance of cinema to filter through to television. Which is a shame, since this is a show very much worth watching, provided of course, that its plots unfold towards somewhere worthwhile...

A special programme, The Making of Carnivale: The Show Behind The Show will be screened at 8pm followed by Episode One at 8.15pm.


Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl): After his mother dies, Ben finds himself with no option but to hang about with a travelling carnival troupe. On the surface a plain farmer boy, Ben hides many secrets and is a sort of a healer, although the full extent of his powers remains unrevealed. As the plot progresses, he finds out that his past and that of the carnival are more intricately intertwined than he'd first imagined.

Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown): The alternate protagonist, or perhaps the antagonist, Crowe is an enigmatic figure by all accounts. He is a devoted preacher who begins having terrifying visions, and develops intimidating powers of persuasion. In an attempt to fulfil what he sees as his divine mission, Crowe can be merciless.

Samson (Michael J. Anderson): The diminutive leader of the carnival, Samson is affable but perhaps not entirely trustworthy. He is the main contact the `carnies' have with their mysterious Management. Ben's presence appears to be part of some plan of the Management's.

Sofie (Clea DuVall): She is the fortune-teller, a tarot-reader whose mother, Apollonia, manages to communicate with her despite being in a catatonic state. She appears to be steering towards the role of principal love interest for Ben, but there is, naturally, a triangle of sorts in the works.

Clayton Jones, a.k.a. Jonesy (Tim DeKay): Jonesy is the chief `roustabout', or rough labourer. A close friend of Samson's, he is not too comfortable with Ben, particularly when Sofie appears to take a liking to the young man. Jonesy has watched Sofie grow up and develop feelings for him; however he never noticed until now, and now it's too late - or is it?

Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau): A once and future snake charmer, Ruthie is the `barker' for her son, strong-man Gabriel. Anyone who can wrestle Gabriel to the ground wins five dollars - a prize Ruthie has almost never had to shell out. Both mother and son, like Ben, see him as someone they can trust.