Through a combination of shrewd marketing and high-quality programming, HBO has turned their Sunday night line-up into appointment television – even though there is no regular line-up to speak of. Instead, original series are rotated in and out of the schedule in abbreviated seasons lasting no more than thirteen weeks. Established favorites like The Sopranos and Sex and the City have served as successful lead-ins, luring large audiences to newer fare like Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s a successful strategy and for many viewers, tuning to HBO on Sunday night is an automatic response regardless of what’s currently on the schedule.
Filling the gap between the recently completed second season of The Wire and the upcoming fifth season of The Sopranos is Carnivale, a new hour-long drama from writer-producer Daniel Knauf (Wolf Lake). Whereas most HBO dramas tend to focus on contemporary society as reflected through one institution or another (prison on Oz, organized crime on The Sopranos, law enforcement, drug rings and unions on The Wire), Carnivale is a big canvas tale of good and evil set against the backdrop of the Depression.
In the Oklahoma dustbowl of 1934, fugitive Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) has barely begun burying his recently deceased mother when a man from the bank arrives in a bulldozer to demolish the family homestead. With no other prospects, Ben hitches a ride with a traveling carnival that happens to be passing through. Samson (Michael J. Anderson), a dwarf who runs the show, receives word from the shadowy Management that Ben is someone to keep an eye on. Ben, on the other hand, is less than enamored of the collection of freaks he finds himself surrounded by, including Lila the Bearded Lady, Gecko the Lizard Man and Siamese twins Alexandria and Caladonia.
Meanwhile, in California’s Central Valley, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) presides over his flock, some of whom are displeased when he welcomes the Okies who have poured into the area. Brother Justin has begun having visions, including an unseasonable snowfall and a woman vomiting up coins.
In an interview on the HBO website, Knauf describes the show as "The Grapes of Wrath meets David Lynch," which is as good a shorthand description as any. Lynchisms are evident everywhere, from the casting of Michael J. Anderson (forever to be best known as the dancing dwarf from Twin Peaks) to the deliberate dreamlike pacing to the surreal flashbacks and hallucinations.
The show’s pilot episode, "Milfay", is rich with period atmosphere; with its parched landscapes and lurid carnival setting, it looks unlike anything else on television. The episode is laden with portents of doom and vague hints of revelations to come. Ben is plagued with nightmares that suggest a troubled past and by the end of the first hour it becomes apparent that he possesses supernatural gifts.
Since HBO provided only this first episode for review, it is difficult to say whether the series will turn out as well as the rest of the Sunday night stable. Like the network’s other hour-long dramas, there’s a strong serial element to the show – the sense of a novelistic story slowly unfolding. For example, while The Wire is by far the best series of 2003, it would be impossible to tell this from watching a single episode; it’s the accumulation of detail that makes it so compelling.
Carnivale has an intriguing set-up, but it’s the sort of larger-than-life allegory that could easily bog down in subsequent episodes. As the second season of Twin Peaks proved, there are only so many dreams, hallucinations and harbingers of the apocalypse that viewers will put up with before demanding that something actually happen. Carnivale gets your attention, but it remains to be seen whether it can hold it.