Image A Sound
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"Milfay," "After the Ball Is Over," "Tipton," "Black Blizzard," "Babylon," "Pick a Number," "The River," "Lonnigan, Texas," "Insomnia," "Hot and Bothered," "The Day of the Dead," "The Day That Was the Day"
by Walter Chaw It's the Depression in Dust Bowl United States, and Ben (Nick Stahl) really needs a bath: His mother's just died (but not before hissing at him to keep his distance, Mr. Antichrist) and he's in the act of burying her when a traveling carnival happens along to spirit him away before the local constabulary can. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy threatens briefly to break out as a bulldozer shows up to raze Ben's ramshackle homestead, but hey diddley hee, the roustie's life for me, says Ben. In a way, comparisons of HBO's handsomely-mounted "Carnivàle" to Douglas Adams's brilliant stuff is apt as Ben, like Adams's everyman Arthur, is orphaned from his home, set adrift in an absurd universe in the company of freaks, and burdened with the responsibility for the salvation of all mankind. A parallel story, joined to Ben's by a couple of early dream sequences, involves preacher-man Brother Crowe (Clancy Brown) navigating some tricky incestual straits with spinster sister Iris (Amy Madigan) in the midst of trying to establish a mission for the dislocated Okies flooding the Golden State--a purpose at odds with a Church hierarchy represented by kindly Father Balthus (Ralph Waite). In almost no time (well, actually, just barely in time for the end of the first season), the opening narration provided by Management liaison Samson (Michael J. Anderson) telling of one avatar for good and one for evil born into each generation comes into focus with Ben on one side and Brother Crowe on the other. No prize for guessing who's who.
Jaw-dropping opening credits that find in the margins of a deck of tarot cards scenes of soup-kitchen privation in the United States concurrent with the rise of Nazism across the pond sets the stage for a lot of steamy interpersonal dramas amongst the carny trailers and big tops. Fortune-teller Sophie (Clea DuVall) has the eye of gimpy roadie Jones (Tim DeKay) and shares a trailer with her comatose mother, Apollonia (Diane Salinger), who nonetheless communicates with Sophie telepathically and, sometimes, telekinetically. Voluptuous "Cooch" dancer Rita Sue (Cynthia Ettinger) earns a few bucks on the side (and on her back, knees, whatever) under the approving eye of her pimp/husband Stumpy (Toby Huss) while tutoring her daughters Libby (Carla Gallo) and Dora Mae (Amanda Aday) in the trade. And snake dancer Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau) turns Ben's head as he tries to discover why it is that life and death seem to follow him around like a pestilence. Chief antagonists on the site are blind seer Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) and bearded lady Lila (Debra Christofferson), both of whom appear to have information pertaining to Ben's mysterious past with which they'll spend twelve episodes teasing him. He's not, after all, the sharpest tack in the carpet.
If casting is nine-tenths of performance, "Carnivàle" has hedged its bets with a cast that looks and acts like our cobbled-together impressions of a Depression-era traveling carnival. It's shot in a dirty, desaturated combination of Norman Rockwell, John Ford, and Edward Hopper, and between its faces, its costuming (Terry Dresbach, Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko, Ruth Myers), and its production design (Dan Bishop, Bernt Amadeus Capra), it lives up to the standard set by the cable outfit's own "Deadwood" as among the most technically beautiful and ambitious television shows in history. Opening shots of the devastation of the Dust Bowl, captured in sepia and tons of sand thrown into a wind machine, establish the period, while the final shot of the pilot episode ("Milfay") is one of three genuine "Holy smokes" moments in the debut season. Pay careful attention to the crops on either side of little Jenna Boyd--incidentally the best thing about The Missing and excellent here, too.
And that's what's so frustrating: "Carnivàle" is methodical about the progress of its development to the point that whole episodes go by on a low simmer that feels suspiciously like noodling and filler. Obvious exceptions are the pilot, which establishes the series' conflict in brief with a dream sequence that includes (in another stroke of genius) a circus bear feeding on carrion in a WWI trench as it's being shelled; "Babylon" (1.5), in which a town of miners makes one of the crew one of their own; parts of "The River" (1.7), where Brother Crowe has an Ambrose Bierce occurrence at some creek bridge and gains insight into his origin myth; and the season finale, wherein, among other things, Father Balthus is forced to confront the moment of his greatest sin. Sometimes gripping but mostly boring, the other episodes are primarily concerned with who's sleeping with whom under the big top--the will-he/won't-she between iconic Jones and the ultimately unsympathetic Sophie, the will-they/won't they of whether Lodz and Lila will spill the beans to Ben, and the will-she/will-she of whether or not Sophie will dip a toe into the love that dare not speak its name with Libby. Flashbacks and repeated dreams become tedious eventually, as does almost every segue to the Brother Crowe/Iris parallel story--which just isn't as interesting, visually or otherwise, as the carny bits. If not for such powerful moments as a funeral that involves a dead carny's compatriots dropping a personal item of theirs onto the corpse before burial (and for the show's aesthetic achievements), "Carnivàle" would just be a twelve-hour tease.
The whole shebang, in fact, feels a lot like a super-extended preview of subsequent seasons of the show, and in playing every bit the introduction to what's envisioned as a healthy run, it demonstrates the usual growing pains of an inaugural year. Neither as oblique as "Twin Peaks" nor as pedagogical, "Carnivàle" boasts almost too much exposition--enough that storylines feel played-out by the end of the season, not leaving much interest in a lot of the interpersonal stuff for the rest of the run, frankly, by overfamiliarizing us with key players and revealing, in the process, that they're not terribly interesting as people go. It might be the point of "Carnivàle" to ground its "last age of magic" in the mud of the mundane, but without the promised epic battle between a creature of light and a creature of dark, one that we have to presume begins in earnest in the second season, it gets as repetitive and lulling as a year humping the load with a traveling road show. What makes season one a potential cult classic, however, is its astonishing period detail, a stray episode now and then directed by underground favourites like Tim Hunter, Alison Maclean, or Peter Medak (more or less conforming their styles to that of the series), the uniform strength of its performances, and, oddly, how well its final seasons will do in picking up the pounds of breadcrumbs strewn by this one. As fishhooks go, in other words, "Carnivàle"'s first season ain't bad.
HBO brings "Carnivàle" home, um, again, in a six-disc release that laudably spreads its episodes, two apiece, across dual-layered platters in 1.78:1 anamorphic video transfers utterly faithful to the dark reds and browns of the show's colour palette. Night scenes are rich blue and black (as in episodes "Babylon," "The River," "Day of the Dead" (1.11) and "The Day That Was The Day" (1.12)), with shadow detail sharp (almost too sharp) and packed with clarity and depth of field. The gorgeous image is matched by DD 5.1 mixes that betray a great deal of reserve in the effects department but a tremendous amount of fidelity as well. Note a quick sequence in "After the Ball is Over" (1.2) in which an establishing shot of the carnival in the daytime features flags buffetted in the wind, the sound they produce coming discretely from the rear channels. (It's subtle but it's fabulous.) Note, too, an otherwise innocuous shot in "Black Blizzard" (1.4) as Brother Crowe stands in his new church delivering exposition while in the right rear channel is heard the tittering of children. I had to mute it a couple of times before determining that children were not tittering behind my house. Though dust storms, thunderclaps, and the general wall of noise in the dream sequences are, of course, thunderous, it's the little moments that surprise.
Three commentary tracks decorate episodes 1 and, inexplicably, 2 and 10 ("Hot and Bothered" (an hour really only distinctive for allowing Ben to take a long-overdue bath)). "After the Ball Is Over"'s, teaming series creator and sometime-writer and executive producer Daniel Knauf, director Rodrigo Garcia, and executive producer Howard Klein, is serious and reverent, detailing technique (SteadiCam was ruled out as being, strangely, too anachronistic) and casting (Nick Stahl, mainly because he wasn't in very good shape and could therefore pass as a famished Okie) with a gravid seriousness that would have been more tedious had it gone on for longer than the length of the episode. As it stands, it's medium-tedious with a dash of pretty informative. The second commentary reunites Klein and Knauf and adds director Jeremy Podeswa (the same trio returns for "Hot and Bothered"), the latter inserting an insouciant irreverence ("Everything in this show makes me want to laugh!") that seems to grate on Knauf and Klein occasionally as indicated by their studied silence post-riposte, although Podeswa's cheek is certainly welcome given the relentless air of grimness that "Carnivàle" exudes.
The third commentary is stricken by a lot of empty space--the long silences suggesting both that the episode is not a great one for commentary and that the shows themselves, for all their attempts at being cryptic, are as insular as the series itself and largely self-explanatory. The sixth disc features a making-of documentary, "The Show Behind The Show" (13 mins.), that spends the majority of its running-time in plot summary and restating its mission statement to be an "almost Biblical" examination of good vs. evil during a difficult period in American history. An interview with historical consultant Mary Corey, interesting for the context she provides, is married to archival footage that makes the show's attention to detail that much more impressive. Cast and crew interviews are various levels of the typical stuff: character motivations and backstory and lots of clips from the series proper. "This whole thing is about self-realization," Stahl informs from the set--and there you have it. The general paucity of supplementary material reinforces the idea that this is a prologue, the success of which is wholly reliant on its second and third acts. Originally published: March 22, 2005.