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.