Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
“To each generation, was born a creature of Light and a creature of Darkness.
And great armies would clash by night in the ancient war between good and evil.
There was magic then, nobility, and unimaginable cruelty.
And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason.”
Thus runs the opening monologue of HBO’s Carnivale, a dark, magical tale of good and evil, wonder and madness, apocalypse and rebirth. And a show that far, far too many people have likely never seen.
Yet, if its language and tone still sound familiar anyway that’s probably because it’s precisely the sort of big, swing for the fences-style bombast that we, as viewers, have been conditioned to expect from our prestige science fiction and fantasy television in recent years. From Game of Thrones to Watchmen, and Lost to Westworld, we’re looking for genre stories with distinct perspectives and something to say, ones that attempt to push our understanding of humanity forward as we untangle lavishly complex narrative arcs.
And, to be fair, many of those shows did just that. It’s just that Carnivale did it first.
A slow-burn retelling of the age-old battle between light and darkness set in the middle of the Dust Bowl, Carnivale originally premiered in 2003 and follows the story of a traveling circus run by a mysterious figure known only as Management. Packed with its share of misfits and miscreants, the group picks up a young man named Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) who has mysterious healing powers and a complicated past. Meanwhile, across the country in California, a Methodist preacher known as Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) begins to display strange abilities of his own, and uses them to build a new ministry. As the carnival travels through dead-end communities and literal ghost towns, surprise connections between Ben and Justin begin to unfold and the show inexorably builds toward a confrontation between the two men.
Sort of. That may be the most basic way to explain the story of Carnivale, but it hardly covers the many gorgeous, frustrating, gloriously weird elements of this truly singular show that ultimately deserved so much more attention than it got.
Truly a series ahead of its time, Carnivale whole heartedly embraced a multi-season story arc that involved grisly flashbacks, apocalyptic visions, and the sort of complex internal lore that often needed a flow chart to explain. Had it had arrived on HBO’s lineup just five short years later, the show probably would have been a massive cultural hit—think Westworld on steroids, with Reddit users debating the hidden meanings of the tarot cards, and physically mapping the carnival’s trek through the remnants of broken and abandoned towns.
Sadly, the show was canceled just two seasons in to creator Daniel Knauf’s supposed six-season vision, meaning that the story was abruptly cut off just a third of the way through its planned overall arc. It also ended on a massive cliffhanger that involved Ben and Justin’s first face off, another surprise resurrection, and the revelation of a third character as the series’ powerful—and potentially apocalyptic—final avatar. Where Carnivale would have gone from there isn’t entirely clear (though Knauf himself has talked about his plans for the show’s conclusion at some length in the years since it ended) but there’s no doubt it would have been a wild and thrilling ride.
Carnivale is stuffed with the sort of dense internal mythology and layered, self-referential storytelling that later shows like Lost and Westworld purposefully embraced, to critical and public acclaim. From occult symbolism and religious iconography to shared dreamscapes and ancient prophecies, there’s little about this show that can even be called straightforward. The pacing is painfully slow at times and its vast swath of characters with bizarre names and strange histories can be difficult to keep track of on a good day. But there are few television shows that so thoroughly reward viewer patience and attention to detail, and it was a story obviously constructed with a clear end goal in mind.
As a series, it’s majestically sweeping and painfully bleak by turns. The hardscrabble lives of the carnival’s residents are generally marked by everyday troubles rather than apocalyptic concerns: how much money a particular act brought in, whether a lover is having an affair, if one specific town’s residents are more likely to prove dangerous to their group than another’s. The suffocating dread that populates these people’s lives is focused on the immediacy of day-to-day living, rather than the visions of mushroom clouds or mangled body parts that plague the dreams of Ben and Justin.
Yet, this is also a series that wrestles with big questions of religion and bigotry, with ideas of history and legend, and with man’s penchant to embrace that which will inevitably foster his own ruin. Its characters are achingly human figures who can sometimes see the future and heal the sick, but those abilities don’t often bring them anything close to prosperity, joy or safety.
In the world of Carnivale, good and evil may be diametrically opposed, but they are not always dissimilar, and the lines between the two are often wildly blurred. As Brother Justin explains in the series’ pilot, while talking to a migrant woman who stole money from the collection plate, “We all—each of us—carries within us the seeds of our salvation and our own damnation.” And for a show about the ultimate battle between light and darkness, the avatars of both sides are appealingly reluctant saviors—or destroyers, as the case may be. (At least, initially.)
Part of this is due to a pair of great, nuanced performances from both Stahl and Brown at its center, which ground the series’ more cosmic elements in two very human vessels. (Brown’s Justin is especially wonderful, all deep voiced fire and brimstone bombast that covers a tragically lost soul.) But the true magic of Carnivale was always its willingness to unflinchingly portray the duality of the world mankind has made—one where good and evil are simply two sides of the same coin, in which the supposed avatars of light or darkness can often feel interchangeable, and where bleakness and beauty are often simply a question of an extra layer of dust. Perhaps the bomb that explodes over Trinity in Ben’s visions does only mark the end of one world—but, at the same time, it’s also the beginning of another.
It’s comforting to think that while Carnivale itself ended far too early, its very existence serves a similar dual purpose, as a show that both illuminated what was possible for prestige genre storytelling and changed what would come after it. A trade of reason for wonder, perhaps, in the end.
Watch on HBO
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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