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
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
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
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
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
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.
THE MAIN CHARACTERS
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
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.