HBO's Carnivàle might be too weird for its own good.

What you're watching.
Sept. 23 2003 2:14 PM

Freaks, Geeks, and Nazis

Will HBO's surreal Carnivàle add up to anything?

Aggressive weirdness dwarfs fine performances
Aggressive weirdness dwarfs fine performances

In the second episode of Carnivàle, HBO's new supernatural drama about a Depression-era traveling circus, our hero, Ben Hawkins, is ordered to clean out a baggage trailer that doesn't exist. In it the young man finds, among other things, a fetus soaking in formaldehyde, a picture of his dead mother, and a top hat straight from a recent nightmare he's had about a priest, a dirty World War I soldier, and an exploding diner. When Hawkins brings the photograph to the circus boss, played by little person actor Michael J. Anderson, the dapper midget probes a bit but is otherwise unfazed that his new roustabout has brought a material object back from the spirit world. Later we see Anderson in a different, presumably real trailer, where he finds the same picture in a dusty old photo album. "What are you up to?" he says, speaking to a set of burgundy curtains. Fans of ambient, symbol-laden television will recognize Anderson as The Man From Another Place (aka the "dream dwarf") from David Lynch's Twin Peaks. This time around Anderson doesn't speak backwards, but I found myself desperately wishing that he would, partly out of a sense of nostalgia and partly because then at least something in Carnivàle would make a little sense.

After two episodes it's hard to say what Carnivàle is about other than, as the title suggests, life in a magic realist carnival. Hawkins joins up after his mother dies in Oklahoma in the first episode, and his brooding presence stirs up intrigue, romance, and hurt among an ensemble cast of mystics, freaks, and whores. There is an intersecting subplot about a preacher-man named Justin Crowe who shares Hawkins' disturbing dreams, but mostly what the audience gets is atmosphere. The prologue sets up a pending battle between good and evil, but the creators are taking full advantage of HBO's infamous patience, and restless viewers will have to have their more immediate apocalyptic needs met elsewhere. Carnivàle draws inevitable comparisons to Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Millennium, but it also has a lot in common with Miracles, ABC's short-lived midseason replacement starring Skeet Ulrich as a man who investigates strange religious phenomena. In Miracles Ulrich encounters a small boy who can heal by touch, an ability shared by Hawkins, who also raises a kitten from the dead in the first episode but keeps that power holstered in the second. In both shows God walks among us, but he is remote and diffident, and the people who channel his powers are regarded with a mixture of shame and fear. It's the kind of sodden fictional world where characters react to otherwise terrifying events with mute stares and gently parted lips, where it rains blood on a sunny afternoon, and if you meet a blind man you can bet he has other ways of seeing.

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Miracles was overtly Catholic, so the central question was one of faith. Carnivàle features some nice self-flagellation but otherwise seems to be based on a more evangelical, snake-handling Christian tradition. The issue here is cleanliness, which, given the show's Dust Bowl setting, is of deep concern. In a flashback, Hawkins' mother learns of his gift and gives him the standard fare about having the mark of the beast, but she also calls him "filth" over and over while clutching a crude, wooden cross. Everyone in the carnival is dirty, even after they bathe, and when the Rev. Crowe spies on his sister taking a shower he may commit the sin of lust for looking at her naked body, but she most certainly commits the sin of greed for using up all the hot water.

If Carnivàle had a more straightforward storyline it might be a pleasure, but the show groans under the weight of too much weird. (You know you're in trouble when an old woman vomits silver dollars and she isn't even part of the circus.) Everything in Carnivàle is mysterious, yet there is no mystery, and if ever there were a story in need of a murder this is it. Twin Peaks could afford to be as strange as it pleased because at its heart it was a simple whodunit. If Carnivàle asks a central question, it's this: What is the link between Hawkins and Crowe, and what do their dreams have to do with reality? Are these visions of the future, residue of the past, or an allegory for the present? We see a lot of jarring imagery: trench warfare; a murderous circus bear; a guy running through corn; a shirtless, tattooed guy limping through corn; and possibly Nazis. I kept thinking of Pink Floyd's The Wall, and while I enjoyed the similar texture of paralyzing fear, I also worry that like the film, all this hoodoo will add up to less, not more, and that any weight will be constructed by the fans, who will have to Web-ring their way into anything meaningful.

This would be unfortunate, because Carnivàle looks great and features fine performances, and the decision to play out the End of Days during the Depression feels right on. But the Revelations routine, while epic and grand, carries about as many surprises as a Super Bowl halftime show. I think it's time to mine another section of the Bible, and I for one vote for a show inspired by Leviticus, with all its strictures and edicts and mandates. Imagine what it must have been like to be going about your business and then have somebody lay the Bible on your ass. You'd have a story about people dealing with a rash of stark decrees they do not completely understand, administered by a distant power who demands complete, unquestioning obedience. Now, that's creepy.

Dennis Cass writes about television for Slate.

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