×

Carnivale

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. Audiences may not be sure where this is going, but the filmmakers at least make the journey interesting.

With:
Ben Hawkins - Nick Stahl Lodz - Patrick Bauchau Samson - Michael J. Anderson Jones - Tim DeKay Sofie - Clea DuVall Brother Justin Crowe - Clancy Brown Iris Crowe - Amy Madigan Apollonia - Diane Salinger Lila - Debra Christoferson

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.

Carnivale

Series; HBO; Sun., Sept. 14; 9:30 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Santa Clarita, Calif., by HBO Original Prods. Executive producers, Ronald D. Moore, Daniel Knauf, Howard Klein; co-executive producers, Nicole Yorkin, Dawn Prestwich, Gregg Fienberg, David Knoller; producer, Anthony Santa Croce; director, Rodrigo Garcia; writer, Daniel Knauf;

Crew: Camera, Tami Reiker, Jeffrey Jur, James Glennon; production design, Bernt Capra, Dean Bishop; editor, Carole Kravetz-Aykanian, Peter B. Ellis; music, Jeff Beal; casting, John Papsidera. 60 MIN.

Cast: Ben Hawkins - Nick Stahl Lodz - Patrick Bauchau Samson - Michael J. Anderson Jones - Tim DeKay Sofie - Clea DuVall Brother Justin Crowe - Clancy Brown Iris Crowe - Amy Madigan Apollonia - Diane Salinger Lila - Debra ChristofersonWith: Adrienne Barbeau, Toby Huss, Cynthia Etti, Carla Gallo, Amanda Aday, John Fleck, Brian Turk, Karyne Steben. Sarah Steben, Ralph Waite.

More TV

  • Prince Harry and Meghan Duchess of

    Harry and Meghan Will Give Up Royal Titles, Repay U.K. for House Renovation

    Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will lose their royal titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex when they step back as senior members of the United Kingdom’s royal family, according to a new statement from Queen Elizabeth and Buckingham Palace. The couple will also repay U.K. taxpayers for renovating their Windsor home, known as Frogmore [...]

  • Grey's Anatomy deaths

    The Top 13 ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Deaths Ranked

    If there’s anyone that knows how to deliver a heart-wrenching death scene, it’s the team behind ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” Created by Shonda Rhimes, the broadcast medical drama came out of the gate in 2005 with literal life and death stakes for its characters. Being set in a hospital meant that mortality was a constant theme [...]

  • Jeffrey Epstein

    'Surviving Jeffrey Epstein' Docuseries Gets Greenlight at Lifetime

    Lifetime has officially ordered the four-hour documentary series “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein.” The announcement was made at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Saturday. The series was originally announced as in development last summer and is expected to air this summer on Lifetime. Hailing from Emmy-winner Robert Friedman’s Bungalow Media + Entertainment, Anne Sundberg [...]

  • Lorena Gallo, Lorena Bobbitt. Documentary subject

    Lorena Bobbitt Biopic Greenlit at Lifetime

    Lorena Bobbitt’s story is getting the biopic treatment. Lifetime has greenlit “I Was Lorena Bobbitt,” a feature about the woman who became a household name and made tabloid headlines when she cut off her husband’s penis with a knife in 1993 after years of abuse. Bobbitt was the subject of a Jordan Peele-produced Amazon docuseries [...]

  • jeopardy

    'Jeopardy!' GOAT Ken Jennings on Trebek, Trash Talk and Why He's Hanging Up His Buzzer

    Well, that argument’s settled: Ken Jennings may now be hailed as the best “Jeopardy!” player in history, having earned the coveted GOAT title – and a cool million dollars, to boot – this week after defeating James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter at the show’s “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” multi-part tournament. But their spectacular [...]

  • Former US basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Produce Revolutionary War Doc 'Black Patriots' at History Channel

    NBA legend and activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is teaming up with History on a documentary on the African American experience during the Revolutionary War. Titled “Black Patriots,” the doc tells the story of some of the most significant Black figures from the time period including Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, Phillis Wheatley and James Armistead Lafayette. History [...]

  • 'Parasite,' 'Jojo Rabbit' Win ACE Eddie

    'Parasite,' 'Jojo Rabbit' Win ACE Eddie Awards for Top Feature Films

    “Parasite” and “Jojo Rabbit” have won the top feature film trophies at the 70th Annual ACE Eddie Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Jinmo Yang won the dramatic feature category for “Parasite” over “Ford v Ferrari,” “Joker,” “The Irishman,” and “Marriage Story.” The victory marks the first time in ACE Eddie Awards history that a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content