Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sci Fi Genre Gems: Carnivale (2003)

Created By: Daniel Knauf
Cast: Nick Stahl, Michael J. Anderson, Clancy Brown, Adrienne Barbeau, Tim DeKay
Aired: 2003-05 (2 Seasons Totaling 24 Episodes)

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

What Is It?  This unique supernatural series delivered an epic story that centered around a traveling carnival making its way through Dust Bowl America in the days of the Great Depression.  The focal character is chain gang refugee Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) who has healing powers that he doesn’t understand and who joins up with the carnival when it happens by shortly after his mother dies (he is allowed to join because the mysterious, unseen “management” permits it, and we find out later that his parents had a history with the carnival).  Also important to the overall arc is the story of Brother Justin Crowe (played by Clancy Brown with his trademark sincere malevolence) who has the power to control others and manipulate their fears.  Both Ben and Brother Justin share prophetic dreams that they find troubling and that they do not understand.  And neither of them realize that events have been set in motion that will result in their paths crossing at some point in the future.

Why It Stands Out:   Carnivale delivered a rare entry among genre shows that mixed intricately plotted stories, a fully realized setting, and complex, morally ambiguous characters into an ongoing arc that presented the viewer with challenging and engaging television.

At a time when HBO was looking to expand on its original programming and distinguish itself from the episodic fare on the broadcast and cable networks, they took a flyer on this series and delivered one of the most original dramas the genre has known.  It’s really hard to sum up this series, and my synopsis above barely scrapes the surface.  That highlights the primary story arc, but neglects the many, intertwined sub-stories and the colorful cast of characters that help the show stand out as well as the production design that gave it such a gritty, realistic feel.

Carnivale had an epic scope to its tale, as it presented us with a riveting saga of free will vs. destiny, but then it also had many intimate, human aspects to its story as well.  Hawkins and Brother Justin may have been the main focus, but the ancillary characters don’t just fade into the background or provide filler action to pad out the hour.  Each of them come alive and offer their own stories and the actors do more than just play the roles, that actually become the characters.  All involved with this series bring their A-game and help propel it into a rare, nearly flawless production.

True, the show could be somewhat slow at times and the stories were definitely dense.  But this rarely bogs it down, it just encourages the discerning viewer to dive more deeply into the episodes.  And there are many layers to be unraveled here as creator Daniel Knauf works in religious themes along with bits of mysticism to flesh out the mysteries laced into the overall story.  This is a challenging show, awash with moral ambiguities and some not particularly likeable characters, but that never works against the story, only makes it that much more inticing.  And then there’s that driving, alluring soundtrack by Jeff Beal that beat Battlestar Galactica to the punch in incorporating Eastern-tinged musical themes to add to the dark ambiance of the show.

Knauf originally envisioned this as a trilogy of “books” with each book comprising two seasons.  And the series initially bowed to very strong ratings, but would see its numbers drop across its two season run and would find itself truncated after completing only one of the three books.  HBO actually wanted to continue the series, but it had grown too expensive and they insisted that the producers would have to cut the budget for it to come back for a third season.  A deal could not be worked out, and the show ended after completing only twenty four episodes.  Knauf has since indicated that the full story of Carnivale will probably never be told, though I hope he will change his mind on that.  I would love it if he would at least continue this in novel format so that he could complete the story and provide it with the full embellishment  and resolution it deserves.

For genre fans who missed out on this one, it is available on DVD and you can also stream it for free with Amazon Prime membership.  I highly recommend you seek it out, and don’t be too concerned about the story leaving you hanging as the final episode of Season 2 provides a resolution of sorts, even if it does leave you wanting more.  It’s definitely worth your time to watch the full series as it provides a rare example of a first-rate genre production that avoids the compromises we see all too often from Prime Time fare.

Interesting Facts:  Not only is Carnivale a rare example of a first-rate, uncompromising genre series, it’s also a rare case where a newcomer breaks into television with his own series.  Daniel Knauf originally drafted a script for his story with the intention that it would play on the big screen.  But it was too long to run as a movie and he also felt that could not cover the full breadth of his intended story in that format.  He later adapted part of the script as a pilot for a TV series and posted it out on his website.  It was discovered by producer Howard Klein who sold HBO on the idea of the series.  (And I’m sure that after reading this, many aspiring writers are now going to start posting their scripts up on the web in hopes of also getting discovered!)

Those wondering where they previously saw diminutive actor Michael J. Anderson who plays carnival manager Samson, need only go back and watch the first episode of Twin Peaks.  Anderson played the dancing dwarf (aka "The Man from Another Place") in that series.

Buy Carnivale on DVD (and the Soundtrack) from

Stream Carnivale on Amazon, included with Amazon Prime Membership:

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