Looking back at Carnivale

Weird and wonderful, Carnivale was perhaps a little too weird to survive on network TV. Michael takes a look back at a much-loved show...

There is more than a little of the game of chance in making a TV show. It’s risky. You’re competing for people’s time and attention with a lot of other shows. It’s expensive. Hundreds of people are employed in making it. For this reason, most TV shows follow a well-trodden formula. Cops ’n’ Docs, whodunnits. Period adaptations. Then there are those that dare to break the mould. They take the risk. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. On occasion, a show will do both.

Carnivale was one such show. Gloriously geeky, and notoriously expensive (a rumoured $4m per episode), it couldn’t find an audience commensurate with the scale of its ambition and was cancelled after just two seasons. The show’s creator, Daniel Knauf, had planned for six, grouped into three ‘books’ of two seasons apiece. It was a tantalising story arc that hinted at a rich and thrilling epic. Still, we have two complete seasons (one and a half more than many shows get), and they are of such high quality that there is much to enjoy. Let any doubters be reassured, although the planned storyline was never to be finished, there is enough to reward even repeated viewing. Carnivale crammed more into its two seasons than many shows fit in eight.

The show was set, for the most part, in the 1930s and boy does it delight in it. A feast for the eyes, every frame is filled with exquisite period detail -the tin plates used at mealtimes, the old time radios, the longjohns-and-dungarees and the dust. Damn if there isn’t a lot of dust. We’re in Steinbeck territory, the great Dust Bowl, among the multitudes struggling westward through the Depression. It is the perfect setting, evoking not just the semi-forgotten world of Tod Browning’s Freaks (though that is a natural touchstone), but tapping into our wider historical understanding of the era. Given what we know of the decade that followed them, it is difficult to regard the 1930s as anything other than a sinister prelude, during which a confluence of historical events – the Depression, the rise of Nazism, the development of destructive technology – churned together to create the conditions for an unprecedented conflict. We look back on the 1930s with a mixture of pity and fear. It was a decade pregnant with dread.

Carnivale’s mood of burgeoning terror is therefore woven into the very fabric of history. The Dust Bowl itself was of such size and destructive power that it resembled a biblical plague. When one character experiences a vision of an atomic explosion it seems at odds with the historical setting. It is. No such explosion would take place for another ten years. When it did, however, it was on the very same location, Alomagordo, New Mexico, with the Trinity atomic test. That word, Trinity. Piling biblical connotations on top of historical allusion and making it work? This is scarily good writing, and all done in the service of the story.

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Carnivale’s writers used this backdrop to increase the feeling that something awful is brewing. Through narration and flashback we are led to expect a spectacular showdown between the forces of light and darkness. It’s a journey we make incrementally, which is again testament to the quality of the writing. Given the amount of prophesying and fortune-telling that goes on it’s amazing how little the characters know about where they are going, least of all the pair with the strongest fates. Much of the storyline is given over to their piecemeal discovery of their destiny but it’s hard to see them as anything other than helpless victims, swimming toward their own unknown destruction.

That sense of movement is also invoked by the show’s setting. Migration is a central theme, whether it be in the movement of ‘Okies’, westward towards work, of people travelling from the old world to the new (several prominent characters are European emigres) or the carnival itself, which cuts a circuit around the south western United States; West Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and so on. Many episodes take for their titles the name of the town in which the carnival has pitched itself. Ending the show 24 episodes deep in New Canaan, California, might not have been Knauf’s original intention, but it is thematically appropriate, being near to the Pacific coast. After a circuitous journey, there is simply no further to go.

They were frequently unwelcome, wherever they stopped. The conflict between the carny folk and settled people provides the show with some of its most challenging scenes. However, the most sinister sequences of all come from the show’s mythos. It is a rather intense brew. There are references to tarot, Methodism, Catholicism, Freemasonry, Manicheanism and the occult in general. Such a mix would be difficult to sustain for long without lapsing into internal contradiction, were it not for the fact that the central mythology was one of Knauf’s own creation. This mythos, encompassing Lightness versus Darkness, represented by two Avatars who rise in each generation to do battle, provides the show’s central narrative spine.

Then of course is the folklore of the carnival itself. Like many travelling people, sailors, gypsies and so forth, the carny folk have their own distinct culture and palette of superstitions. This is treated as well as the period detail. It is also superbly blended into the show’s mystical elements. The incident of the baggage trailer in the first season is a perfect example, blending a traditional prank with the sense of magic. It also makes a neat counterpoint -the loaded dice and sleight-of-hand of carnival ‘magic’ tricks, against the backdrop of real magic.

One prominent example is the ‘Pick a Number’ scene. It is carny justice, their own form of order. I don’t know how accurate a portrayal of carny culture it is, but even if it is entirely fictional it is a brilliant piece of writing. It’s tense and sinister, with a man’s life at stake, but look how much it resembles the harmless games of chance offered to the punters, especially in the way the odds are stacked. It presents carny culture as a way of life, as natural to its followers as it is alien to an outsider. As the blind seer Lodz (a personal favourite character) tells new boy Ben Hawkins, ‘the wagon is circled three times around the accused. Why three times? I doubt anyone here remembers. But that’s the way it’s always done’.

The sense of authenticity is complemented by a talented cast who bring a real sense of naturalism to what is a rather fantastical script. Fans of Twin Peaks will recognise Michael J. Anderson, the Man From Another Place, here playing Samson, the ringmaster/general day boss of the carnival. He is the chief connection between the real day-to-day life of the carnival and the spooky otherness of the show’s mystical elements. We see him handle the recognisable complaints of his staff and deal with issues from money to handling local officials. He’s also the main go-between for the mysterious ‘Management’, who appears to be calling the shots. Samson leads a troupe of weirdos, oddballs and freaks, among them a bearded lady, a strongman, a family running a cooch show (look it up. But not at work) and, most arresting of all, Gecko, the ‘Lizard Man’ resplendent in his scaly skin and dreadlocks.

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Nick Stahl plays Hawkins, a lost drifter with a huge destiny. As the show begins, Hawkins is a reluctant hero and has even less of a clue about what’s going on than does the viewer. As the show progresses, he becomes neither insider nor outsider, remaining at the edge but still in the heart of things. Controlled by forces he cannot understand, while possessing power enough to control them himself, Stahl pulls off the Keanu-in-the-Matrix trick of looking bewildered the whole time. He’s an unusual (semi) lead, but it’s an unusual show. It works.

The show’s standout however, is Clancy Brown as Brother Justin Crowe, the screen’s most sinister clergyman since Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. Brown is well known for his portrayal of the sadistic warden in The Shawshank Redemption, but he surpasses that role here. He’s a big guy, easily dominating every scene he’s in, but he adds something else, a spiritual and intellectual terror to complement his sheer physical presence. Even his most innocent words carry feelings of menace. Of all the show’s oddities, this ordinary looking man is the one the viewer is fated to remember.

There is so much in this show that it’s astonishing how much of it is encapsulated in the show’s opening credits which are among the best I have ever seen. They blend the familiar iconography of the 1930s – Depression soup queues, FDR, Jesse Owens, the KKK, Zeppelins – with the occult imagery of tarot cards. The images are carefully overlaid to make it look as though they are one and the same. It’s a wonderful visual metaphor for the show’s themes and setting and a work of art in itself. The music, the wailing strings and doleful piano cements the feeling of oddness.

Ultimately, the show was perhaps too weird. While it appealed to a solid hardcore fanbase, it couldn’t really garner the mass viewership that could sustain its expense. Knauf was offered the chance to continue on a much-reduced budget but declined. The story was left dangling somewhat and it was a shame for faithful viewers to be denied the satisfaction of seeing certain threads reach their conclusion. However, it is admirable that Knauf decided against compromising his vision. As he said himself ‘Not one teeny, tiny shred of our time, trouble and work was wasted. Carnivale. It will continue to live as long as the work is viewed and enjoyed.’ He, and the talented team with whom he worked have left us two seasons of the very highest quality, leaving memories only of excellent television. This is surely preferable to a steady cheapening of the original idea and a reminder that there are people out there who are ready to place a stake in a game of chance.