A fugitive named Ben Hawkins takes refuge in a travelling carnival, trying to escape his nightmares and strange healing powers. But sinister forces threaten his sanctuary.
Imagine if John Steinbeck met Stephen King in a truckstop cafe. In a corner booth, their heads bent low, they share a plate of pie and a cup of Joe. Hitting it off, they cook up an idea for a sprawling, multi-faceted story about America, each contributing something of his own style, his own predilections. The result would surely be something like Carnivale, a magical-realist series set in the Dust Bowl America of 1934 and HBOís latest dressy, authentic TV import to take home in a plump and attractive DVD box set.
The plot, frustratingly unfulfilled by the close as it searches for continued seasons, is an apocalyptic fusion of horror and social plight. We have a hero, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), picked up by a travelling carnival, tormented by violent dreams, given the requisite mysterious past and blessed with the gift to heal. We have a villain, Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), sharing those same dreams and twisting Go'ís words to fit his own Biblical powers of destruction. And we have the full coterie of Sideshow Bobs that make up the gypsy-like carnies. Indeed, it could be a twisting metaphor for Hollywood's stand against the ranks of the Christian Right; this travelling carnival of freaks and magicians against the titanic priest busy mustering his baptised drones.
The strongest draw of Carnivale is its subtle infusion of magic into a hard-bitten reality. American reviews have remarked, disdainfully, on its Lynchian aspirations - mainly because midget Michael J. Anderson, who plays carnival honcho Samson, was the legendary Man From Another Place who habituated Twin Peaks. But for all its welter of subplots and dream sequences, all the pinches and prods of mysticism, it does muster a gripping mystery. When will the forces of light and dark collide? What do the dreams, strobes of blood and grit from World War I, portend? And who, or what, is 'Management'? Be warned, it's one of those scripts where as soon as a question is answered, ten more sprout in its place. The only relief is that Season 2 is on its way.
Less bracing than Deadwood and far more deadpan and elliptical than either Six Feet Under, The Sopranos or Sex And The City, Carnivale is beautifully made but close to impenetrable. Which, perversely, is kind of the point.