Throughout the first season of “Carnivale,” the infuriatingly dense HBO drama, execs kept assuring me the program would gradually become less confounding. It didn’t, but I kept watching anyway. Now it’s back for a second year, and despite some overt exposition about what’s at stake, the series is again intriguing but less than satisfying — a concept more notable for the unusual time and space the show occupies than what it achieves dramatically.
Despite what amounts to a two-credit refresher course in Carnivale 101 at the outset, anyone who hasn’t bought in yet needn’t bother trying. Suffice it to say the plot centers, sort of, on a reluctant young man (Nick Stahl) with strange healing powers, who represents a potential savior against the tyranny of a minister (Clancy Brown) who is some kind of demon.
What sets “Carnivale” apart is strictly its setting — a traveling carnival in the Depression-era dust bowl, blowing through sordid corners of skeletal little towns. From that perspective, the program remains technically superior, from the main titles to the impeccable production design to Jeff Beal’s creepy score.
Unfortunately, very little of what transpires involving the large cast has much resonance beyond the moment, though it’s such an unusual backdrop for a series — even without the apocalyptic showdown between good and evil — that it’s interesting, just never entirely fulfilling.
At the very least, the two central figures, well played by Stahl and Brown, now realize who they are and have begun interacting through dreams that suggest something BIG is in the offing. The question is how many viewers will have the patience or endurance to find out what.
That’s because even infused with a bit more clarity, there’s still something impenetrable and distancing about series creator Daniel Knauf’s vision, which, like the side-show attractions, proves little more than a curiosity. In that sense, Michael J. Anderson’s presence as carny boss Samson provides an appropriate link to the equally perplexing “Twin Peaks.”
As with that series, this period-oddity has become an addiction for a few, and the pay channel had the luxury of bringing it back for that modest contingent. Yet gazing beyond the show’s conflict of good vs. evil, HBO has enjoyed an unusually laudable track record in the age-old war of good vs. mediocre. It’s against that measuring stick, ultimately, that “Carnivale” comes up short.