Oh how the mighty have fallen! The once ubiqitous Heroes premiered this week with barely a whimper in the media. And while I’ve been very disenchanted with the show for awhile, except HGF alum Zachery Quinto, I was still willing to give it another chance. And what do they bring out to try and resurrect flagging interest? Carnies! Super Carnies! Which got me reminiscing about the HBO Series Carnivale. Which is ironic on a couple of levels. First, a good friend and I had been talking just last weekend about the show, trying to explain it to his wife as a weirder, meaner version of Twin Peaks. Which is doubly ironic considering last week’s HGF alum Kyle MacLachlan. And did I mention Michael J. Anderson who played the dwarf in Twin Peak’s Black Lodge plays the manager of the carnival?
All of this circuitous musing aside, Carnivale was a perfect fit for cable in its dark, brooding, epic feel. It’s been tried before on television and usually comes out poorly or poorly supported. And in the end, that was the demise of Carnivale as well, its carnie creepiness even too much for HBO, who cut its six season run short by four seasons. But it did give us almost two perfect seasons of biblical weird, the battle of dark and light played out in the blowing sands and starkness of the Great Depression, a time of desperation, where souls got lost as well as entire towns.
The basic premise follows the traveling troupe trying to make their way through the carnival circuit. From the very beginning, we are told about the two opposing forces and introduced to the strange trailer holding a hidden voice that directs carnival manager Samson to help an escaped fugitive farm boy, played expertly by Nick Stahl. This farm boy has known he’s special and fights to both hide and understand his abilities and his dreams of a dark future. That future seems inexplicably bound to a flawed and potentially evil California preacher played by one of my favs, Clancy Brown. As the preacher struggles with his flock , he discovers he has certain abilities and prophetic dreams that drive him down his path.
One of the best ensemble casts ever put together, the stories weave about in uncertain ambles, taking you down dark places and daring you to look away. Anchored against the vast darkness by hints of the goodness and pettiness of the everyday relationships within the troupe and town, Carnivale doesn’t quite reach its destination with its abrupt cancellation. Sad especially when HBO seems determined to stop anyone else from finishing off this would-be masterpiece. But there’s enough wonder and shudder in what remains to keep you guessing and marveling and the uniqueness that is this traveling show.
Check out both seasons of HBO’s Carnivale on DVD. And don’t worry if you need to keep the light on afterwards.