With Carnivale, Home Box Office has produced another high-quality show. Like its brethren, The Sopranos
and Sex and the City, it could become a hit if viewers are willing to devote time and thought to its quirky, high-minded stories about a traveling carnival.
Set in 1934 in Oklahoma, Carnivale is a moody, densely woven tapestry that evokes Twin Peaks
and Wild Palms. And like those two series, Carnivale
refuses to be tied into a tidy package at the end of each episode. Judging by the first three installments, the story arc will probably take all of the season's 12 episodes to unfold.
The series' central character is Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), a poor young farmer the carnival happens upon while he is burying his mother and having a standoff with a bank representative who has come to bulldoze the house and claim the land. The carny folk take in Hawkins with some reluctance on both sides, but the mysterious, unseen figure known only as "management" says the boy has been expected.
Hawkins is surrounded by the usual band of "freaks": a dwarf (Michael J. Anderson, Twin Peaks); a fortune teller (Clea Duvall, The Laramie Project) and her catatonic, psychic mother; a mentalist (Patrick Bauchau, The Pretender); a bearded lady; a strong man; Siamese twins; roustabouts; and burlesque girls. But Hawkins has a mysterious past and a gift — the ability to heal.
His history is somehow linked to the carnival through a former carny named Henry Scudder, whose very mention fills some troupe members with dread. Hawkins is also linked somehow to a preacher with whom he shares some disturbing visions and dreams.
Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown, The Shawshank Redemption) — whose fire-and-brimstone sermons are peppered with apocalyptic language — is the other main thread. Under what he believes to be instruction from God, Crowe, also discovering that he has special abilities, crusades to build a church for poor Okies seeking work and guidance.
The show is heavy on religious themes, and Carnivale
viewers are told at the beginning that the series will be a battle between light and darkness. Its intrigue rests in how that final conflict between good and evil unfolds.
debuted Sept. 14 on HBO. Premiere installments will run Sundays at 9 p.m.