Well, fuck. Let’s shake some dust.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Carnivàle up to the end of Season 1
HBO|2005|12 episodes|60 mins|
Picking up right after last season’s cliffhanger, Carnivàle‘s second season wastes no time in tying up the loose ends from season 1’s cliffhanger: disposing of Lodz, the aftermath of the fire in Sophie’s trailer, and the revelation of Management’s identity.
Both Ben and Brother Justin become more fully aware of their destinies and the impending battle throughout the season, and they both begin to solidify their power in their respective camps, the carnival and the church.
In the carnival, much of Ben’s time this season is spent trying to track down the elusive Henry Scudder, the previous Dark Avatar and his father. Samson and Ben finally come to an understanding, and although this is kept secret from the other Carnies, the direction of the group is pretty much under Ben’s control now that he’s accepted his place as the Light Avatar. Wherever he needs to go to track down Scudder or to figure out how to stop Justin, so goes the carnival.
Samson’s got problems of his own, however. As the carnival travels farther and farther off the beaten track to diminishing returns, his control over the troupe begins slipping. Some members of the carnival begin to seriously challenge his leadership and wonder if the never-seen Management even exists at all. It’s understandable; they’re losing money and they’re being kept in the dark.
Ruthie, meanwhile, having been resurrected by Ben at the end of last season, begins seeing dead people and worries about her own sanity. It’s pretty awful that an action Ben performed out of compassion has lead to her becoming a nervous wreck. As things progress it becomes apparent that Ruthie might not be quite herself.
Lila the bearded lady, is very suspicious of Ben and Samson, blaming them for Lodz’s disappearance. She’s right, of course, but as she gets increasingly frustrated with Samson’s attempts to placate her, she starts trying to win the other carnies to her cause.
Jonesy’s blossoming romance with Libby causes a lot of friction within the Dreifuss family, as does Stumpy’s gambling habit. He’s racked up so much debt the family is just narrowly avoiding bill collectors at nearly every stop. Rita Sue’s had more than enough of her husband’s shenanigans, and like Lila, is getting sick of Samson’s increasingly hollow explanations for the carnival’s unusual route.
Sophie is having a hard time dealing with the death of her mother, and give up reading Tarot cards because what she sees terrifies her. She tries working as a roustie, but the other men aren’t keen on working with a woman, especially in a physically demanding job. She gets more and more distant with the rest of the group and even her growing feelings for Ben can’t stop her from wanting to just take off.
In California, Brother Justin and his sister Iris move out to a large house in the country, where Justin plans to build a great temple to…well, to himself, really. His Church of the Air radio broadcasts begin to hold serious power over his listeners, drawing followers to him, swelling his ranks until they number in the thousands.
Justin becomes aware of both his own nature are a creature of darkness and of Ben Hawkins as his enemy. As he solidifies his own power, he dispatches his own agents to find Scudder and lure Ben to him.
Iris, meanwhile, continues to cover up Justin’s dirty laundry, and is tasked with caring for Norman after his collapse last season. It’s clear the two are up to something, but just what isn’t yet clear. She’s put in a very difficult spot when the public demand for the culprit of the orphanage fire becomes necessary to address, and Justin considers ratting her out to maintain his own image.
The acting is this season exceptional. Nick Stahl (Ben) didn’t win me over with his awkward John Connor in Terminator 3, and even in season 1 I felt he was a little wooden. In fact, that was one of the things preventing me from enjoying the show as much as I could have at first, but in Season 2 he’s improved dramatically. Even so, there’s no comparison to Clancy Brown’s Brother Justin. He just has such a powerful voice and such a presence on screen, he steals every scene he’s in, and makes you forget that yes, he is the voice of Mr Krabs. Even without his distinctive pipes, the man is so very skilled at acting with just facial expressions he doesn’t even need to say anything.
Also impressive is Samson, played by Michael J Anderson in what is probably the largest, most in depth role written for a little person that didn’t revolve around their stature. You just can’t help but like the guy, and as the show gets darker and darker, he’s the one guy the audience can always trust.
I’ve always rather liked the way the avataric powers worked on Carnivàle, and as the two leads grow in power, so too does their magic. Ben is a healer, but he can only heal someone by taking life from something else. I think it’s a brilliant twist on the idea and one that stops his powers from being a game breaker. If he wanted to resurrect somebody, someone else has to die. The balance needs to be kept.
Justin’s abilities in the first season seemed closer to powers of persuasion and illusion, along with some power of command; people just tend to do as he says. Both of these things have escalated in season two. Persuasion has become borderline mind control, and his ability to give people terrifying visions has intensified. He can completely mind-rape them now, if he chooses.
Season 2 has much greater plot momentum than the first. It makes sense, this being the last half of Book One, and it’s also partly the result of meddling from HBO’s executives. I think this show benefits from moving along at a slightly faster clip. We actually get some friggin’ answers, and the disparate plot threads finally begin to converge.
Another of HBO’s decrees from on high was that Brother Justin become a more clear-cut villain than the conflicted man he was in season 1. Many viewers were pretty cheesed off at this, but I thought it was handled quite well. The writers do a good job of making the transition feel like a natural evolution: Justin consolidates his power, accepts his role, and thus grows more bold, and more cruel. Doesn’t hurt that Clancy Brown excels at playing villainy.
There’s also a hell of a lot of incest subtext going on here between Justin and Iris, and oddly it’s something high muckity-mucks demanded more of. Justin continues to have is skritchy sexual tension with his sister, and now in season 2 with another character I won’t spoil here. It’s not something touched on in most TV series and it certainly adds an extra creep factor to the proceedings.
Carnivàle does creepy exceedingly well. It’s quite reminiscent of Stephen King’s masterpiece The Stand, and epic battle between good and evil. Two separate camps under champions of each extreme, and a dark fantasy journey across a rather sinister America. The difference is, The Stand got to bring its lengthy story to a satisfying conclusion, whereas here we’re left with merely the first third of something much bigger.
The unique setting lends a wonderful texture and flavour to the show, both the sights and sounds of the carnival, and the dusty grit of 1930s Depression-era America. The production values are through the roof: Sets, effects, period costumes, vintage vehicles. The level of detail on this series is breathtaking. Unfortunately, this proved to be a significant factor inCarnivàle’s undoing: That shit costs money. Hell, even the title sequence was the most expensive ever made for a TV series:
Carnivàle cost $2 million per episode, and that’s hugely expensive for a premium cable channel with no ads, especially for a show that, while popular with critics as well as a small cult following, never attracted huge numbers. It was intended to be a trilogy of “books”, each book being made up of two seasons. HBO offered to renew the series for a third season with half the budget, but showrunner Daniel Knauf refused to water down his vision, andCarnivàle went dark for the last time.
There is at least some closure, what with this being the end of the first book, and many of the plot threads from the previous seasons are tied up, but the story is far from over, and if anything, feels like the real meat of the piece had only begun. Daniel Knauf has made it clear he’s quite willing to finish the story in comic book or novel format, but HBO owns the rights to the IP and won’t give him the time of day.
While this move would be understandable, given the circumstances, after complaining about Carnivàle‘s price tag, HBO replaced the series with Rome which was even more expensive, coming it at a colossal 8 POINT FUCKING 7 MILLION DOLLARS. Per episode. Granted, Rome was a co-production with the BBC, but still. Hilariously, HBO pulled the plug on that one after two seasons as well.
This was another step in HBO’s rash of cancellations and endings from 2004 – 2007. Almost all of the network’s critically acclaimed and/or popular shows were gone and they were kind of left with nothing. Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Carnivàle, Deadwood, Rome, Six Feet Under…all of them either ended or were cancelled during those few years. So, I guess all they had left was Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Carnivàle’s second and final year is much improved over its first outing and really managed to worm its way into my heart. It was a bizarre, surreal ride, mixing the best elements of David Lynch and Stephen King into a delicious ferris-wheel shaped package. Its cancellation is especially frustrating, because what could have been a unique television epic the likes of which the medium had never seen is instead unfinished and largely forgotten. HBO took a huge risk with Carnivàle and it’s a shame they didn’t stay the course.