Monday, October 16, 2006

"Carnivale": The HBO Series.

The obsessive "Carnivale" re-watch has begun. For those of you who missed it, Carnivale was a series on HBO that followed a travelling troupe of carnies through dustbowl-era America. Its creator was Daniel Knauf, and its cast included Michael Anderson (of "Twin Peaks" fame), Nick Stahl ("Bully"), Patrick Bachau, Adrienne Barbeau, Amy Madigan, Clancy Brown ("Highlander", "Bad Boys") and Clea Duvall. Originally it included some genuine human oddities among its cast. The show only aired for two seasons- a total of 24 episodes. Evidently it was too challenging for the ordinary cable consumer. Its complex themes and interactions rewarded the patient viewer, while it's cinematography and set locations entranced the eye. The efforts made to portray this milieu in authentic period detail add much to the show's visual appeal.

I first became aware of the existence of this series through a teaser add in some glossy magazine that I would ordinarily never pick up (although I forget which one). The photography was shot with some type of filter that made it look simultaneously otherworldly and gritty. I mentally registered my interest, and proceeded to forget about it until I saw it on the shelves at a Best Buy. When I re-encountered it, I bought it without checking out any of the reviews, on the strength of its packaging alone. I watched the first season in a marathon of absorption, and then promptly invited a group of friends for a complete repeat viewing. Each episode resulted in almost endless discussion and speculation. Each of us developed particular theories about the meanings implicit in the work. Our timing with Season 1 was excellent, as we finished the DVD set a few weeks before Season 2 was aired.

The plot of Carnivale concerns the intertwining stories of two seemingly unconnected figures. A young escapee from a chain gang (played by talented young actor Nick Stahl) is taken up with the carny folk, and his troubled relationship with the touring performers slowly evolves into a recognition that there are forces working in his life that inextricably tie him to the past, present and future of the carnival. Meanwhile a preacherman reasseses his relationship with his god, and begins to minister to a growing flock of immigrant okies in California. These figures enter into an involved conflict- and pit the freedom and tribal culture of the traveling show against the rigid moralism and authority of "the Church". The absorption into these situations was almost total for me. Pagan mysticism, bible-belt evangelism, millenarianism, outsider communities, secret societies, the occult, carnival ethics, early psychiatric practices, and Mexican lore were component themes that created a rich and fascinating experience.

What made the show particularly intriguing to me was its moral relativity and convoluted reflections of "good" and "evil". The characters were drawn with such depth that their complex agendas and motivations were (initially) almost impenetrable. Very seldomly, in the first season, did the creators provide the audience with easy answers. Unfortunately this would change with the second season. HBO executives were concerned with its relatively low viewership. They felt that events in the show were not being resolved quickly enough, and that people were losing interest. In order for the show to receive an extension, it was required to be dumbed down. The multiple layers of meaning and reference were truncated, and an emphasis on action replaced much of its subtlety. No doubt these changes reflected the needs of the conventional television consumer... but the fans of Carnivale were far from conventional.

The result was a compromise that fully satisfied no one. Fans still loved the show- but many complained that it had lost some of what had made it so extraordinary. The increased audience never materialized, and the show was cancelled after the end of the second season. Daniel Knauf had originally written Carnivale in three chapters- each of which was supposed to be told in two seasons. The conclusion of what was actually aired seemed rushed and offered little in the way of resolution. There were many plot threads and references that were simply discarded, and I was left only to wonder what fascinating stuff I'd never have a chance to see. Knauf expressed his desire to someday complete his story. While modest, Carnivale's fanbase was intelligent and rabid. There were several internet message boards dedicated solely to analyzing the intricacies of the show. Maybe someone... somewhere... will give Knauf an opportunity to finish the story.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will patiently await that day

11:03 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home