“Only the good die young” as the song goes. Over the years there have been a number of TV shows that have made an impact on us here at 25YL, which we have been sad to see struck down in their prime. A season or two that grabbed us, and…that’s it. Whether there is some sense of completion, or we are left dangling by a finger from the side of a cliff, these are shows that we think are worth remembering, re-visiting, or even watching now for the first time. This week Laura explores the show that was the closest thing we got to Twin Peaks while we were waiting for Series 3. A show that surely inspired The Leftovers, Lost and possibly even Twin Peaks: The Return itself: Carnivàle
When Twin Peaks ended in 1990 a huge void was left in television viewing for me. Then in 2003, way before Twin Peaks: The Return was even a twinkle in the eyes of David Lynch and Mark Frost, HBO revealed their new show Carnivàle and my eyes lit up. Immediately attracted by the casting of Michael J Anderson, otherwise known as The Little Man from Another Place/The Arm, I had a feeling this show would be good. It surpassed expectations tenfold and quickly became my second favourite TV show of all time, an honour it still holds to this day despite the many greats we have been treated to in this Golden Age of Television.
Carnivàle was perhaps just too weird for its time. 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. We were left at the end of Series 2 on a cliffhanger as frustrating as “How’s Annie?” 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. The show was notoriously expensive to make at $4 million per episode, but it shows and it was worth it; it hasn’t lost any of that beautiful magic despite the passage of time. 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 longjohns-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—with the Trinity atomic test. That word: Trinity. Much like Frost and Lynch did for Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return and Frost’s Secret History of Twin Peaks, biblical connotations and the occult are mixed with historical facts and it works so well. It is said that creator Daniel Knauf would have finished Carnivàle‘s six-year run with the explosion of an atomic bomb as the beginning of the “Age of Reason”. Isn’t that interesting?
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, but like Twin Peaks it is rich with mythology; in particular that of Christian theology, gnosticism, Tarot divination, and Masonic lore, especially that of the Knights Templar.
The Hawk vs The Crow
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.
Ben’s struggle with his destiny as an Avataric Creature of Light is played to perfection by Stahl. His character is quiet, intelligent and riddled with the pain of what his power holds—he barely has to say a word; it’s written in his eyes. His mysterious and vulnerable nature is alluring to all the “Carnies” he befriends, especially those of the female variety, what with him being very different to the majority of men they meet on their travels. But Ben has way bigger fish to fry than the talent—though one lady does charm him—and it is his fondness for her that leads him to discovery the enormity of his power and the price he must pay for using it.
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. The Minister holds many secrets, and his ancestry and legacy make him an Avataric Creature of Darkness, a power and fate he cannot resist.
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; an amphibious version of Cat from Red Dwarf if you like.
Everyone, unknowingly in most cases, plays their part in helping the Avatars reach their final battle destination. Lodz, a blind Mentalist, with the power to see through the eyes of others is a character much like John Locke of Lost. 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 Dreifuss (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; never more so than in two of the stand out episodes of Series 1: “Babylon” and “Pick a Number”, which still leave me feeling truly haunted to this day.
Upon my recent rewatch of the show I was surprised to find just so many actors who have starred in Twin Peaks, particularly those from Series 3, showing up here. Robert Knepper has a major role as Tommy Dolan, radio broadcaster who teams up with Brother Justin later on to preach across the airwaves, in scenes creepily familiar to those of Part 8 of The Return. Also of note is John Savage, who plays the mystery man Scudder. Jane Adams and Frank Collison also have minor roles.
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. There was so much more mythology to learn; the back stories of many characters could and would have been dived deeper into. Sofie’s story arc had just taken a massive twist so it would have been a delight to see how that turned out in the end. However, details of what may have happened have been discussed by creator Daniel Knauf and several of the actors online.
It is perhaps no surprise then that Carnivàle is such a favourite of mine, as I am a sucker for an unsolved mystery. The show still has a cult following, with many people still begging HBO for its return to our screens. Its legacy could never match that of Twin Peaks though, possibly due to its timing—too late to be groundbreaking in 2003 yet maybe it was just a year or so too early to take a place in the list of ‘Prestige Television’. 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 I would highly recommend that you do—it may just fill that hole that Twin Peaks has left…again.
“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.”