On Re-Watching Carnavale

I am not one for television,

Well, let me clarify a bit.  I get my entertainment on a television but rarely watch anything produced on the major television networks in America.

Other than sports and the evening news.

I have absolutely no interest, zero, none in the likes of America’s Got Talent, The Voice, Big Brother, Survivors, The Batchelor et al.  Neither do I care for “good” cop shows, lawyer shows, doctor shows etc.  I simply don’t know any in real life so I can’t relate.  I had two cops in the family and currently have five lawyers.  And I certainly don’t know any doctors who went into medicine to cure the sick and help the poor.


I watch the kind of shows that interest me and are for the most part, well done.  None of these appears on network television.  What I watch is not for everyone’s taste though many were quite popular and ran for years.

I watched Game of Thrones; seems everyone did though I didn’t not become a fanatic partisan as to who should be King.  Didn’t get angry and take to the internet because my guy didn’t wind up on the throne.  In fact, I kind of suspected the ending.

I thoroughly enjoyed Downton Abbey and will look forward to seeing the movie eventually.  I watched Vikings regularly though it was filled with historical inaccuracies, characters who lived centuries apart appearing in the same scene.  No matter.   I found it entertaining.  I watched Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

I will watch a foreign series with sub-titles (never dubbed!).  Recently saw Dark, set in a small German town at the access to a hole for time travel.  Life and Fate, a Russian series based on the magnificant novel of Vassily Grossman about the life of a middle class family during Stalingrad and Josep Stalin.  I watch Admiral, also a series in Russian about the life of white Admiral Kolchak and his mistress Anna Timireva as he remained faithful to the Czar during the Russian Civil War.  And I watched Novecento in Italian with sub-titles.

Living alone, I can watch what I like.

Which brings me to one of my all time favorites – Carnavale.

Carnivàle was perhaps just too weird for 2005. It was planned to be a six series show, but was cancelled after ratings dropped in Series 2, which was and still is a real shame.  The show was notoriously expensive to produce, at some $4 million an episode and, despite winning 5 Emmy’s and nominated for dozens more, HBO pulled the plug.

“We were left at the end of Series 2 on a cliffhanger.   I won’t reveal what that was for those of you who have not seen the show, and please don’t be put off watching for that reason.  Carnivàle is so deep in mystery that it is still totally worth your time, and even though the planned storyline was never to be finished there is enough to reward viewing over and over again. Carnivàle crammed more into its two seasons than many shows fit in eight.”

Now don’t get me wrong; the first and major arc of the storyline was finished.  It is just that the door was left ajar for so much more which never came.

. The opening credits feature the art of a tarot card deck and religious paintings that transition almost seamlessly into a sequence of clips taken from historical films. Each card represents a different element of Carnivàle’s ambiguous storyline. So, both visually and in terms of its meaning, this is a multi-layered opening sequence.

The show was set, for the most part, during The Great Depression of the 1930s, and it absolutely delights in it. A feast for the eyes, every frame is filled with exquisite period detail: the tin plates used at mealtimes, old-time radios, the long johns-and-dungarees, and the dust. So much dust. Carnivàle’s mood of burgeoning terror is woven into the very fabric of history. The Dust Bowl itself was of such size and destructive power that it was almost like a biblical plague. When one character experiences a vision of an atomic explosion, it is at odds with the historical setting. There would be no atomic bomb for another ten years. When it happened though, it was at the very same location—Alomagordo, New Mexico.

But back to the beginning. We follow the intertwining stories of two men struggling between free will and destiny. It is the age old story of the battle between good and evil;  it is rich with mythology; in particular that of Christian theology, gnosticism, Tarot divination, and Masonic lore, especially that of the Knights Templar.

Ben Hawkins, played by Nick Stahl—who was also starring as John Connor in Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines in the same year—was our sensitive and reluctant anti-hero. His story begins as an Oklahoma farmer and chain-gang fugitive, picked up by the travelling carnival shortly after his mother dies. Ben has the supernatural power of healing. But as he learns through the story, to restore life he also has to take it—a burden that weighs heavily on the young man. He begins to have lucid and disturbing dreams and visions of people unknown to him, and also unbeknownst to him is that he shares these same visions with another man: Brother Justin Crowe.

Brother Justin Crowe is played by the utterly brilliant Clancy Brown, who is well known for his portrayal of the sadistic warden in The Shawshank Redemption, a role he even surpasses here. Justin is a Methodist minister who resides with his sister Iris in the small town of Mintern, California. From the very beginning his internal battle against being led into temptation is clear. His relationship with Iris is somewhat discomforting—their kisses more intimate and familiar than most people would consider appropriate between brother and sister.

“Justin is on a similar journey of self discovery to Ben, but with Justin firmly believing his orders are being delivered by The Lord, when in fact they are coming from a very different Superpower. He is both likeable and frightening, charismatic but also intimidating. Even his most innocent words carry feelings of menace. While his original intentions are good he cannot quite hide the truth from his eyes—he wants to care about his flock, but sometimes the urge to do bad is just overwhelming.”

Ben is the creature of light while Justin the creature of darkness.

So these two men are the key players in the war between Heaven and Hell, but there really is so much more fruit to be plucked from the tree.

The sense of authenticity in the show is complemented by a talented cast who bring a sense of realism to what is a rather fantastical script. Michael J Anderson plays Samson, the ringmaster/boss of the carnival. He is the connection between the day-to-day life of the carnival and the spooky otherness of the show’s mystical elements. We see him handle the 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 cootch show and, most splendid of all, Gecko, the “Lizard Man” resplendent in his scaly skin and dreadlocks.

Everyone, unknowingly in most cases, plays their part in helping Ben and Brother Justin  reach their final battle destination. Lodz, a blind Mentalist, with the power to see through the eyes of others.  Full of secrets but he’ll make you work hard to reveal them. Then there is Sofie (Clea DuVall) and her catatonic mother Apollonia (Diane Salinger): Tarot reading fortune tellers who are able communicate telepathically. Sofie would become very important to the story.

But it is the characters without magical powers that often bring the most charm. Jonesy (Tim DeKay), an ex-baseball player who suffers from a crippling knee injury, is Samson’s right hand man and runner of the Ferris Wheel. His relationships with Sofie, and Libby (Carla Gallo) and Rita Sue  (Cynthia Ettinger)—cootch dancing mother and daughter—are some of the more human, heartbreaking, and relatable elements of the show.

Then there is the folklore of the carnival itself. Like many travelling people, sailors, gypsies and so on, the carny folk have their own distinct culture and palette of superstitions. This is as perfectly done as the period detail. It is also superbly blended into the show’s mystical elements.

“So what could have been for Carnivàle? Well the sky really was the limit. With the series ending with a dramatic revelation, and the battle between Good and Evil only really just beginning, it was a travesty that it was cancelled too soon. I have no doubt whatsoever that if it was to air for the first time today we would get the full six series that were originally planned, as TV is such a huge commodity the cash would have kept flowing.”

If you haven’t seen the show yet and like this sort of story I would highly recommend that you do.

“On the heels of the skirmish men foolishly called the War to End All Wars, the Dark One sought to elude his destiny, live as a mortal. So he fled across the ocean, to an empire called America. But by his mere presence, a cancer corrupted the spirit of the land. People were rendered mute by fools who spoke many words but said nothing. For whom oppression and cowardice were virtues, and freedom… an obscenity. And into this dark heartland, the prophet stalked his enemy, til, diminished by his wounds, he turned to the next in the ancient line of Light. And so it was that the fate of mankind came to rest on the trembling shoulders of the most reluctant of saviors.”
– Samson


About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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8 Responses to On Re-Watching Carnavale

  1. beetleypete says:

    I love the sound of and look of this show. Sadly, we don’t have HBO here, unless one of the main networks buys one of their productions. (As with The Sopranos, which I know you don’t like, but I loved) Nobody picked up Carnivale, so unless I can get it on DVD, I doubt I will ever see it.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Memarge says:

    It’s available on DVD. My hubster and I would watch it faithfully every Sunday night. There was a connection to and with everybody.

    I thought you’d written about Carnivale because the man who was Adrienne Barbeau’s son and the show’s strongman just passed away less than 2 weeks ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      I didn’t know Memarge. Its strange. I was thinking about this series for no apparent reason recently. I remember it from a very dark time in my life and wanted to see it my mood at the time affected the way I saw the show. So watched it again – and I learned why I liked it so much. Best regards from Florida.


  3. Elizabeth says:

    I saw the answer to my question in one of the earlier comments. I will look at Amazon Prime. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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