A correction was made to this review on Sept. 12, 2003.
HBO’s Dust Bowl drama “Carnivale” is an absolute visual stunner with compelling freak-show characters — but the series unfortunately takes a leisurely approach toward getting to a point. Even after three episodes, it’s not clear what is the ultimate point of the show, which mixes the dark side of religion with carnival workers and the dirt-storm trail of poverty between Oklahoma and California fruit fields. Audiences may not be sure where this is going, but the filmmakers at least make the journey interesting.
It’s a queer intersection that’s being created here. Taking pieces of science-fiction, “The Exorcist” and John Steinbeck, “Carnivale” appears to be telling linear stories about a fugitive, a traveling freak show and a clergyman. Much like Sci Fi’s equally creepy “Taken” and, to a lesser extent, “Twin Peaks,” the logic of the piece probably won’t be clear until the conclusion of the 12th and final episode — if then.
“Carnivale” demands a viewer’s full-on attention, much like “Six Feet Under’s” early segs. Direction in the first two episodes (Rodrigo Garcia for part 1, Jeremy Podeswa on part 2) is such that viewers will want to look into the characters’ eyes to try to glean a sense of what’s real and what’s fiction; as much as the cinematography uses the vast expanse of the West as its canvas, this is a highly personal tale.
The power of spirits is certainly the strongest element in “Carnivale.” The lead, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), a fugitive who joins the traveling carnival after his mother’s death, and a preacher in California, Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), share a similar nightmare in which they are being chased and shot at. The two men are also possessed by visions, some violent and some seemingly benign.
Hawkins doesn’t give much thought to what’s happening to him — he’s too angry about losing his home, his mother and his freedom to grasp the supernatural or even accept the come-ons from the women attracted to him. While some of the flirtation is sexual, Sofie’s (Clea DuVall) interest in him is more of a long-term commitment. In a series that’s one nuanced note after another, Hawkins is the single booming presence.
Samson (Michael J. Anderson), the diminutive boss of the carnival, takes a liking to Hawkins though supernatural shenanigans get his mind racing about whether his new hire is a mistake. Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), a blind mystic, has warned Samson about Hawkins but those concerns fall on deaf ears.
In Brother Justin’s world, all appears to be normal — aside from the nightmares. Brown does a superb job straddling the line between stoic and menacing, and there are hints about his weaknesses, conveyed quickly with subtlety. He wants answers about these visions — why an Asian brothel, for example, is a conduit for a sign from God — though there appears to be something more earthly that’s troubling the preacher.
While there are a fair number of established stars listed in the cast — Amy Madigan, Ralph Waite, Adrienne Barbeau — they don’t play significant parts in the first few episodes.