"There's rules. You give life, you gotta take it from somewhere else."
Trust HBO to come up with an original series like "Carnivàle", which has been described as "Grapes of Wrath" meets "Twin Peaks" with a little bit of "Big Fish" added in for good measure. In an idiosyncratic show that just gets weirder and more fascinating with each passing episode, "Carnivàle" is able to take a stranglehold to its audience and hold their rapt attention by cleverly revealing only bits and pieces of its truly mysterious plot each time; just enough to pique an interest in its audience and encourage them to return week after week.
While the regular networks are concentrating their efforts on creating ‘procedural' crime and medical shows ("CSI" and "Medical Investigations") that offer stories that usually wrap up in one episode, HBO is already an old hand at serials--shows that deftly develop its characters and story throughout an entire season. Literally, these are the shows that seem to consume its audience for months at a time, prodding them to follow each episode religiously, in case, God forbid, they happen to miss something that is discussed at the water cooler the next morning. With the exception of ABC, which debut two successful serials, "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives", this current television season, no other major networks have had as much success at serials as HBO. Now you can safely add "Carnivàle" to the pay cable channel's illustrious list of great drama series. How can one ever go wrong with a channel that produces and broadcasts supreme dramas like "The Sopranos", "Six Feet Under", "The Wire" and the soon-to-be-released-on-DVD Western drama "Deadwood"? Like "Carnivàle", HBO's hot streak seems like pure magic.
And magic, together with supernatural and extraordinary powers govern the entire universe that our colorful carnival characters inhabit. Theirs is a domain that is at once both wondrous and freakish as well. Where else would one find Lila, the bearded lady; Apollonia, a catatonic seer who speaks to her daughter Sofie through a psychic connection; Ruthie, the snake charmer; Gecko, the scaly-skinned lizard man; Alexandria & Caladonia, the contorting Siamese twins, Professor Lodz, a blind ‘mentalist' who can tell the origins of an object just by holding it; Gabriel the carnival's strong man who can pull out steel nails with his teeth; and finally the trio of Dreifuss women, a mother and two daughters team who runs the carnival's cootch-show, which is an early version of a strip club performance. Running the day-to-day operations of this traveling freak show is a dwarf by the name of Samson (Michael J. Anderson). But as we come to slowly understand the structure of the carnival, Samson is not the one who is actually in charge, as he takes his orders from a mysterious and unseen superior whom he calls Management, a title that cannot be any less innocuous than it actually sounds.
"Carnivàle" tells two parallel stories that at first glance, seem to have no connection at all with one other. It alludes the viewer to the fact that the Great Depression and the Dustbowl condition that the country experienced in the 1930s may be the work of something more sinister and supernatural and not man-made. And this is a tale of two individuals who are on opposite sides fighting for and against humanity.
The first is a story of Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), a troubled 18-year old whom a traveling carnival picks up as he is trying to bury his mother on their dispossessed farmland at the height of the Dustbowl era, circa 1934. As Ben passes out from exhaustion immediately after the burial, the carnies pick him up just as the authorities arrive. According to Samson, after conferring with Management about their new arrival, the mysterious owner of the carnival could only give the most cryptic reply ever--"He was expected". Something big, as they say, is definitely afoot.
As Ben tries to adjust to life with the rest of the carnies (the freaks) and the rousties (the laborers who do most of the back-breaking work like putting up the tents), he finds that some are not as welcoming as the others. Ben has an ally in Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), who takes more than a platonic liking to the young fellow. Sofie (Clea DuVall), the tarot card reader, tries to get to know Ben but is pushed away because Ben is not one for revealing anything about himself, preferring to alienate those around him. On the other side of the fence is Jonesy (Tim DeKay), the leader of the rousties, who dislikes Ben solely because of the attention that Sofie seem to lavish on him. About the only people who know more about Ben's special ability and his destined role are Management and to a certain extent, the seer Apollonia (Diane Salinger) and the mentalist Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau). It is rather convenient that none of these characters can reveal much because we never get to ‘see' who Management is, Apollonia is catatonic and Lodz is a blind drunk who knows of Ben's powers but not enough to guess his exact role in the overall universe. A loner with a shady and dark past, Ben also suffers from repeated horrific dreams that are so vivid and scary to even spook Lodz as he foolishly places his hands on Ben while he was dreaming. Slowly, we learn that Ben's visions seem to have a direct connection with the carnival, as the person who appears in it turns out to be a man who used to work there, named Henry Scudder (John Savage).
In the second ongoing story, half a country and thousands of miles away from where the carnival is, a Methodist minister, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) attends to his flock in an idyllic California town of Mintern in the San Jaoquin Valley. At the outskirts of town, a tent city has gone up, where hundreds of people, trying to escape the drought and poverty, has congregated in this Californian town. None of the affluent townspeople welcome these newcomers and many of them leer at these poor and grubby outsiders. When an old lady from the tent city shows up at Brother Justin's church during a service, his sister Iris (Amy Madigan) notices that the woman is stealing money from the collection plate. Delicately confronting the woman after the service, Brother Justin experiences a profound and miraculous event that completely changes his outlook of God and puts him on a new path to preach to and ‘save' the outsiders. After having a vivid vision in front of Chin's, the local Chinese brothel, Brother Justin is now more convinced than ever that God is speaking directly to him, urging him to turn this place of sin into a place of worship. In one of many bizarre coincidences that seem to imply a deeper and more sinister connection between Brother Justin and Ben, we see them both share a similar dream about Scudder. That event alone foreshadows the revelation of the final truth and the amazing events that are yet to come.
In the first half of the series, the pacing is decidedly slow as the show meanders along at an unhurried pace, with both the main characters, Ben and Brother Justin (and the audience as well), going on a journey of self-discovery. First, Ben needs to come to the self-realization that his special ability is not a curse but a blessing and how the elusive Scudder fits into all that he is experiencing, traveling with the carnival. As for Brother Justin, following the visions that he sees, he sets out to explore the real reason behind why he has been chosen and what is his role in all of this. This series straddles both the paranormal, in Ben's storyline and the religious, in Brother Justin's tale. When their respective roles are revealed towards the end, the same realm that both men walk on will never be the same again. Battle lines will finally be drawn and the truth about both men's destiny will then emerge. To disclose any more would be a major injustice to our readers who have yet to watch this series. Let's just say, you certainly won't regret it if you do. "Carnivàle" is perhaps the most compelling paranormal television series since "The X-Files".
As viewers will find out as they watch "Carnivàle", the tiniest nuggets of clues are deceptively put out each episode and as the story moves along, each piece of the bigger puzzle becomes clear and how they fit into the overall agenda will slowly but surely become, just as this reviewer found out the hard way, the viewer's sole obsession. There are stories that interest me and there are stories that truly become a fixation. For me, "Carnivàle" falls into the latter category, prompting me to watch, when my free time permits, at least two but sometime even three episodes a night. Even after finishing three episodes, it is not easy to put the DVDs away for the night without wondering what other wonders will await me in subsequent ones.
Performance-wise, Clancy Brown takes top spot as the troubled minister, followed closely behind by Nick Stahl, Clea DuVall, Patrick Bauchau, Tim DeKay and Michael J. Anderson. In fact, every single character on the show, no matter how small, quirky or sinister they are, produce noteworthy performances all round. It is through the efforts of this outstanding cast that makes the entire premise of the show and the period setting so realistic and believable that the audience can't help but get immersed in it.
Although the first season of "Carnivàle" is only twelve episodes short, HBO has chosen not to skimp on the video and audio quality of this DVD release and only place two episodes on a single disc, bringing the total disc count to six.
Disc 1: "Milfay", "After the Ball is Over"
Disc 2: "Tipton", "Black Blizzard"
Disc 3: "Babylon", "Pick a Number"
Disc 4: "The River", "Lonnigan, Texas"
Disc 5: "Insomnia", "Hot and Bothered"
Disc 6: "The Day of the Dead", "The Day That Was the Day"
In keeping with the Dustbowl era setting of the show, the color that you will encounter the most on "Carnivàle" is that of yellow-brown dust. This fact provides the show with a consistent yellowish color scheme. Everything, from the people to the buildings and cars are constantly dusty and grimy, blasted by the ever-blowing sand. Some might say that this is a monotonous way of coloring a show but it is just a constant reminder of the realities of that time. Much like all of HBO's previous DVD releases, "Carnivàle" provides the audience with a beautiful and sharp video transfer, free of any blemishes or errors. Colors are natural and nicely saturated, without any hint of bleeding. As I do not subscribe to HBO, I have no idea of what aspect ratio that "Carnivàle" is presented in during its original broadcast. Most likely, it is displayed in a pan and scan version. If that is so, then as a big bonus, in this DVD release, "Carnivàle" can be seen in beautiful anamorphic widescreen measuring 1.85:1. Subtitle options include English, Spanish and French.
For a dialogue-driven and dramatic show like "Carnivàle", I was pleasantly surprised to find a dynamic use of the surround channels. Other than providing environmental sounds like thunder and swirling winds, there are also instances of explosions and echoes that give the back channels some workout. I listened to the show using the English Dolby Digital 5.1 option and found it to envelope me with an outstanding use of discrete audio components. Dialogue is mainly clear but sometimes, louder than normal background sounds seem to drown it out a little bit. Other audio options include English, Spanish and French Dolby Surround 2.0 tracks.
Like most HBO DVD releases, there is always a dearth of bonus features and "Carnivàle" is no exception. Altogether, there are three audio commentaries and one featurette on this 6-DVD set.
Disc 1 contains two of the three audio commentaries, one each on both the episodes on this disc. First, on the pilot episode, "Milfay", director Rodrigo Garcia, series creator Daniel Knauf and executive producer Howard Klein all contribute to the audio commentary. On the second episode "After the Ball is Over", the audio commentary is supplied by director Jeremy Podeswa, Daniel Knauf and Howard Klein. The final audio commentary can be found on Disc 5, for episode 10 titled "Hot and Bothered". It is supplied by again, director Jeremy Podeswa, Daniel Knauf and Howard Klein. Nothing really stands out in these three audio commentaries, just your usual run-of-the-mill information about each episode.
Finally, on Disc 6, you will find the single featurette called "The Making of Carnivàle". First, it features interviews with creator Daniel Knauf and the rest of the cast as they describe the motivations behind the show and also their own characters. Then there are behind-the-scenes look at table readings, location shooting, how the sets were created and the design of the period costumes. This 13-minute feature is quite interesting but all too brief.
I must admit that the packaging for "Carnivàle" is one of the more attractive ones I've seen all year. In keeping with the Dustbowl and supernatural theme of the series, the outer slipcase and the multi-disc Digipak foldout unit are both beautifully illustrated with pictures that look like a combination of a old faded photograph and a watercolor painting. The Digipak unit is designed in such a way that the shape resembles an ancient book, which is quite appropriate.
I can't believe it but here I am again praising practically every new HBO series or show that gets released on DVD. Needless to say, HBO has done it once again and "Carnivàle" is just simply awesome storytelling. I was so tempted to give this series my first "10" rating ever for Film Value. Creator and writer, Daniel Knauf pegged Season One of "Carnivàle" as one of self-discovery for the characters and one that lays the groundwork for a whole new dimension of stories set to air for Season Two next month. If there is one television series on DVD that you plan to get this year, "Carnivàle" is it. Absolutely no question about it. It is pure magic.