Carnivàle is surely one of the most bizarre television shows ever made, even surpassing Twin Peaks, which no doubt served as an inspiration. Set in Southern California during the Great Depression, Carnivàle focuses on the stories of two men: Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), a young man who joins a travelling carnival after his mother dies, and Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), a Methodist minister trying to find his way in the dark depressing environment of the Dust Bowl. Both of these men have unique ‘powers’ and come to see themselves as key players in an epic Biblical battle between Darkness and Light, with a major theme being the struggle between free will and destiny. In other words, this is unlike anything else ever shown on TV, full of theological language and ideas. But Carnivàle is not, I repeat: NOT, something the average person in church pews would enjoy. Far from it! This is television at its darkest and scariest and I would recommend it only to those who can handle the likes of Game of Thrones, though Carnivàle is much more artsy and slow-moving than Game of Thrones.
Yes, Carnivàle is also made by HBO, which means top-notch production values. It’s created by Daniel Knauf and features a large and excellent ensemble cast. It’s also gorgeous to watch, with a style that perfectly matches its surreal story. It may be slow, but I found it mesmerizing. Carnivàle is more episodic than most of the serials I’m reviewing but the episodic stories feed into the long story arc in a way that sets this show apart from episodic TV. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the stories and I was disappointed that the show was cancelled much too soon (and with lots left hanging), running only two seasons from 2003 - 2005, so I can only giving Carnivàle ***+. My mug is up.
The granddaddy of surreal edgy TV serials, Twin Peaks aired on network TV from 1990-91. Kyle MacLachlan (who is brilliant) played FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who goes to a small town in northern Washington (just south of the Canadian border) to investigate the murder of a young woman named Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Things get dark and twisted in a hurry as Cooper begins to uncover the endless secrets harboured by the townsfolk.
Created by Mark Frost and Dvid Lynch, Twin Peaks was a huge cut above (in quality) what network TV was offering at the time and compares favourably with cable TV shows. The first season was nominated for fourteen Emmy awards. The writing was exceptional, the music was haunting, the style was captivating and the ensemble cast was scary. It was cutting-edge TV. Unfortunately, the second season kind of petered out and didn’t quite satisfy. So Twin Peaks also gets only ***+. My mug is up.