It’s time to take Grown-Up Fantasy TV reviews to the circus! If I had to make a list of great TV shows cancelled prematurely, HBO’s Carnivàle would be in one of the top slots. Probably few people have even heard of this show, let alone remember anything about it. That’s understandable—it only lasted two seasons, and it aired the last episode eight years ago. From what I understand, the show was cancelled mostly due to expenses, which is a shame because Carnivàle packs a lot of potential into two brief seasons.
I got into this show simply by doing a Google search of “fantasy TV shows.” The first time Carnivàle popped up, it struck my interest. I mean, a battle between good and evil set during the Depression with a traveling carnival and an evil minister? I was so in. Then I noticed the cancellation and mere two seasons, which made me hesitate. But Carnivàle stayed in the back of my mind, nagging me until I finally caved and checked out season one from the library. And I’m glad I did. Carnivàle may not last long, but it’s one of the most unique shows I’ve ever seen.
Synopsis: “During the Great Depression, an Oklahoma farm boy and a charismatic minister learn that they are key players in a proxy war being fought between Heaven and Hell.” –Borrowed from my favorite movie site, IMDb.
The Good: Pretty much everything. The plot, the cast, the setting, the costumes—it’s all just really, really cool. To me, the premise is something completely original. Sure, we’ve seen things set during the Depression, and we’ve seen tons of TV shows pitting good against evil, but to put these together with a traveling carnival and a little bit of magic is a lot of fun. However, just because the show is about a carnival doesn’t mean it’s lighthearted; it’s dark and mysterious to the very end—much like many of the characters. We’ve got the main protagonist, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl)—a character who’s rough around the edges, but very sympathetic and likeable. Then there’s all the carnival folk. Fearless, clever leader but secret softie, Samson (Michael J. Anderson), who just so happens to be a little person. Blind mystic Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), whose intentions are always shady. Tough but sweet Sophie (Clea DuVall), who reads fortunes. Sassy bearded lady Lila (Debra Christofferson), seductive snake charmer Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), crippled chief laborer Jonesy (Tim DeKay)—the list could go on because the carnival crew is filled with fascinating characters. On the other side of the coin, there’s the seemingly unrelated story of Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), a California minister who plays the role of a righteous man, but gradually reveals himself to be pretty twisted as the series pans out. With him is his creepy, intense, overprotective older sister, Iris (Amy Madigan), who seems a little too close to her brother for comfort. Through their frightening dreams and strange powers, Ben and Brother Justin are somehow linked. As the carnival travels closer and closer to California, we get to find out why and how. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride. Favorite moment: I don’t know if you’d call this a favorite moment, but for me it’s one of the most memorable. In season one’s episode “Pick a Number,” the carnival has just suffered a tragic loss in a town called Babylon—a place that apparently traps dead souls forever. When one character goes to the main stretch in town, he briefly sees the ghost of his lost loved one in a window. This ghost’s fate is not a happy one, and it’ll give you chills when you see why.
The Bad: I say this with a lot of love for both shows, but Carnivàle is like ABC’s Lost—it’s way complicated. I mean, did you see how many important characters I named up there? And that’s not even all of them. There are a lot of plot lines to keep track of—plot lines that throw out questions and don’t hurry to answer them. In fact, for every answer the show offers up, two more questions rush in to take its place. While this kept me coming back for more, I know that this type of show can be beyond frustrating for a lot of people. There’s also the fact that though Brown does a phenomenal job with his character, I just wasn’t as interested in Brother Justin’s story. Any time the show hopped from the carnival to the minister’s house, part of me wanted to fast forward. There’s often so many interesting things happening with the many great characters at the carnival that the goings-on of Brother Justin seem to pale in comparison. And let’s not leave out the fact that Carnivàle was cancelled prematurely. Season two leaves you with a hefty cliffhanger. If you become invested in the show, this can be maddening. Least favorite moment: In general, I’m just gonna say any of the weird moments of sexual tension between Brother Justin and his sister. The guy is already pretty good at creeping us out. Can we not add “enjoys incest” to his list of character flaws?
To Sum It Up: This show is not for everyone. It’s very complex, it takes its sweet time answering questions, and, of course, it doesn’t even properly end. But it’s also just too good. The atmosphere is incredible, the characters are fascinating, and the story is addictive. Plus, if the lack of an ending drives you crazy, the show’s creator released information about how the characters would end up, so at least there’s that. Even with its cancellation, Carnivàle has nudged its way into my top fantasy shows. If you like fantasy and especially if you’re a Lost fan, I’d say give it a whirl. You can mourn the wasted potential with me later.
My Grade: A-