Carnivale by HBO

Posted August 18, 2011 by Meoskop in Media Reviews, Television / 5 Comments

The cast of HBO's show Carnivale sit in costume, dust bowl era fashions and a pickup truck framing a ferris wheelOk, this wasn’t in my book bag. 

The thing is, it’s rare to find a work as detailed as Carnivale. The casting is so perfect, the myth so well assembled, that I am willing to forgive it being so celebratory of rape culture. On the surface, Carnivale seems anti-woman. As the show progresses, we come to understand that the women are central. (It doesn’t resolve Babylon, one of the most haunting and disturbing hours ever filmed, but it mitigates a lot.) Carnivale is also very white world. All the major players are white, all the minor players are white. If you want a minority you can choose from whores or tribal dancers. (And did I mention rape?) Yet I still loved it.

The basic set up is that during America’s Dustbowl the forces of good and evil came to a major clash. The pace is as slow as the times with sudden shocking bursts of momentum. Events shift in and out of focus, motivations and allegiances are rearranged with each revelation. What keeps Carnivale from collapsing under it’s own ambition are the actors. This is a remarkable work. As a human character study Carnivale is perfection itself. Late in the series a character (Samson, played by one of my favorite actors, Michael J. Anthony) is challenged for hypocrisy. Why will he undertake an action for one person but not another when the stakes are unchanged? “He was my friend. You ain’t.” Exactly. In the land of Carnivale, in the human fight between good and evil, the personal is what matters. Personality dominates morality.

Carnivale is not without flaws. Aside from rape and race there are moments where characters should challenge each other but do not. As most of this occurs late in the second season, I suspect cancellation was upon them and the push to tie the series off was strong. While I had heard the ending was a sharp cliffhanger, I disagree. Obviously written while hoping for a renewal, Carnivale’s ending is perfectly suited to the tale it tells. There are no full stops in the struggle of light versus dark, there can be no true resolution. The big wheel has to keep turning or the ride is over.

I think Carnivale is well worth the time. It’s opening titles are unsurpassed, it’s visuals are exceptionally well conceived and it’s acting is largely perfection. There are exceptionally dark moments but rarely gratuitous ones. (Again, accepting it is super white and rapey.) I found that watching too many episodes in a row was bad for me. Like potato chips it was hard to stop cramming them down, but without a break I felt sick for days. Carnivale could easily be rebooted, the action moved forward a few years, the actors returned to their marks. It is a series you never forget with plenty to fire the imagination. Or you could hate it. That’s the beauty of the show, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.


5 responses to “Carnivale by HBO

  1. A friend of ours got us the first season for christmas last year, and I watched the first episode and basically fell in love and then had a sinking feeling in my gut. Surely a series this good couldn’t possibly have escaped getting axed, right? Sure enough, it was cancelled before its time. I’ve held off watching any more episodes because I didn’t want my heart getting broken.

    But if you say the 2nd season doesn’t end with a sharp cliffhanger, I believe you, and I will watch more of it.

  2. No pressure now, right?

    It’s not a cliffhanger. It’s not a total resolution either – there are some major characters whose fates are not fully resolved, but there is more than enough resolution of the large plot points and I think it’s easy enough to extrapolate. Let me know when you finish – I don’t want to spoil anything but I’d love to discuss the end with you.

  3. I like knowing that there is a resolution. (Don’t get me started on TV executives and thei cancellation issues!) My best friend recommended this, but I still haven’t watched it. I think I should, once I get through my current DVD pile – it keeps growing 🙂

  4. I know – mine has taken over my closet. It’s ridiculous. I watched this series by transferring it to the iPad and skipping some reading.