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Fall '03: "Carnivale"

I know what you've been wondering. The question burning unquenchably in your mind is this: What are Clancy Brown, Adrienne Barbeau, and that midget from Twin Peaks doing these days?

The answer is yet another one of HBO's edgy original series, Carnivàle. Clancy Brown plays a minister who may or may not be the bad guy, Adrienne Barbeau flashes some skin as a carnival snake charmer, and that midget from Twin Peaks, Michael J. Anderson, (not surprisingly) plays a midget, but this time he's a midget who runs a carnival.

They're all supporting characters surrounding Nick Stahl, as some kind of good guy, who can heal (and maybe raise the dead) with his touch; and the deeply beautiful Clea Duvall, who does tarot card readings and is ostensibly the love interest.

You can tell she's the love interest because she's the only cast member not covered entirely in dirt. It's the Great Depression, you see, and we start off in Grapes of Wrath, Oklahoma, so, you know, everything is dirty.

That's all you'll get from me on plot because it's just about all I could figure out from the first two episodes. Apparently the show is about some struggle between Good and Evil, played respectively -- I think -- by Stahl and Brown, and I only figured out that much because Anderson helpfully comes on at the beginning of the very first show and pretty much says that's what the show's about. Good thing, too, because otherwise I'd be hopelessly lost.

Aside from that -- and everything is pretty much aside from that in Carnivàle -- we follow this travelling carnival around the country while unexplainable things happen. You might assume, at some point, everything will be explained. You'd be very optimistic to make that assumption, but what the hey.

The show has more in common with Twin Peaks than just Michael J. Anderson and incomprehensible plotting. It also has many quirky characters, a lot of relationships which are only hinted at, an oppressive atmosphere, and strong production design. What it does not have, which is what made Twin Peaks such a great show, is any sense of humor. At all. Not even one iota. This show is serious with a capital SER.

Nick Stahl's big acting choice with the character of Ben Hawkins is to have him walk like his balls itch something fierce. He's got maybe three lines per episode and otherwise he just mooches around staring at the (dirty) ground through his (dirty) forelock and frowning (dirtily), all the while gimping along with this half-limp (through the dirt).

Limping seems to be the gold standard for acting on this show: About half the characters limp and most of the rest slouch. They're all depressed, I guess, what with this being the Great Depression and all.

Not that it matters since just about all of that is overwhelmed by Dan Bishop's production design. He populates the screen with dirt -- lots of dirt, don't forget the dirt, they probably have to import dirt by the barrel -- and gritty signs and scuffed corners and peeling paint and... and... and... so much damned ugly stuff that my eyes started to water. The whole show is frayed, unraveling, flapping, torn, ragged, unkempt. Hordes of second assistant directors are just off-camera urging their team to toss more dirt into the fans so every scene looks like it's in a windblown sandbox. Armies of young costumers are sent out each day of filming to grind brand-new jeans into the dust. Visine ought to be a sponsor.

And after all that, what do we have? Really, just some tired old saw about how the old-time carnival is actually the heart of weirdness and darkness.

I think of the carnival the same way I think about fireworks. Back 150 years ago, when you lived in a town where everything was shades of gray and brown and you never saw anything else because you were too illiterate and too tied to the land to go anywhere, entertainment came to you, and the entertainment was fireworks and carnivals, and they seemed great -- incredible, really -- because you were nothing but a yokel who'd never seen anything more exciting than the south end of a north-bound steer. Well, newsflash: It's 150 years later and we have new, more exciting types of entertainment, like television, and Websites writing about television, and videogames, and MP3s. Once upon a time, you could only see bright colors at a fireworks show. Now I can get better color on an elderly Trinitron. Time was you needed a sideshow to see freaks of nature. Now they're anchoring the evening news.

But since Ray Bradbury, we've apparently decided, as a culture, that carnivals are something other than dim-witted and outdated entertainment. We've decided that they're something more. Something deeper. Something dark and sinister.

But they're not. Clowns aren't some conduit into the dimmest recesses of our unconscious. Clowns are just supposed to be funny. Only they're not funny anymore because now we have Chris Rock and George W. Bush.

Alas, Carnivàle creator Daniel Knauf didn't get my memo. He still thinks this is some kind of fantastic idea, using the carnival as a nexus of magic and wonderment and weirdness and stuff. Strange symbolism abounds in the carnival: Midgets! Tattoos! Bearded ladies! Absinthe! Strippers! Ferris wheels! Snake charmers! Strongmen! It's a hack writer's wet dream!

It just isn't very original or interesting for the viewer. You might as well go back and re-read "Something Wicked This Way Comes." It has the excuse of being first published in 1962, based on Bradbury's actual memories of travelling carnivals, and thus not being a derivative slog through the cultural dumpster.

Maybe Knauf figures he can overcome the worn-out basis of his material through labyrinthine plotting and overzealous production design. But he's wrong. The plotting is pointless. There's a lot of meandering and nothing much happens to advance the story. Ben Hawkins finds an old photo in a carnival trailer! It's of his mother! It means... we don't know what it means. No one else does, either. And in two hours of television that's the big event. This makes The X-Files look about as confusing as a recipe for ice.

And the production design -- who gives a crap about production design? When it's more interesting than the characters, that's not a sign of good design, it's a sign of bad writing.

In the end, with all the minor plot points and non-events, with all the limping and the dirt, with all the "Whoa, carnivals are so, like, creepy, man!" moments, I found myself facing just one question in two parts: Who gives people the money to make shows like this? Does Adrienne Barbeau need work that badly?


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