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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.