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Tuned In: With its dark mysteries, HBO's 'Carnivale' provides a splendid series

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

BURBANK, Calif. -- The best part of a TV critic's job is the joy of discovery. It's a rare sense of enthusiasm that comes with finding a series you want to share with others. I felt it with the pilot episodes of "The X-Files," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Freaks and Geeks" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." But it's been a while since I had that overwhelming feeling of, "Here's a show I love and I want others to love it, too."

Michael J. Anderson portrays Samson, who runs the traveling show on HBO's new series, "Carnivale." Anderson calls the program "Twin Peaks" with logic. (Doug Hyun/HBO)

TV Preview: "Carnivale"

WHEN: 9:30 p.m. Sunday; 9 p.m. subsequent Sundays on HBO.

STARRING: Nick Stahl, Michael J. Anderson, Clancy Brown.

Because of HBO, that sense of exhilaration returned when I watched the first three episodes of "Carnivale" (9:30 p.m. Sunday; 9 p.m. subsequent Sundays).

There's no question this intriguing, seductive series is set to a slow boil. Sunday's premiere, following the summer season finale of "Sex and the City," is particularly deliberate. Admittedly, that's a kind euphemism for "slow," but this series picks up its pace in future episodes. Anyone taken with the dark mystery of "Twin Peaks" or "American Gothic" is advised to stay tuned.

Chain-gang fugitive Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl, who played John Connor in "Terminator 3") joins a traveling carnival in the Dust Bowl of 1934. The show is run by Samson (Michael J. Anderson, the dancing little person on "Twin Peaks"), who answers to a mysterious higher, unseen power called only "The Management." Other carnies include conjoined twins, a bearded lady and Sofie (Clea Duvall), a tarot card reader whose comatose mother speaks to her telepathically.

A parallel story follows a Methodist minister, Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) of Mintern, Calif., who has the same dreams as Ben. These characters are destined to meet at some point.

In future episodes, others label Ben "The One" for his ability to heal the afflicted. Justin anoints himself with the same title after dreams and conversation with a fellow preacher.

"In desperate times, the good Lord looks over the flock and chooses one man to inspire the multitudes, one man to offer hope where there was only hopelessness," Justin is told.

Their stories are murky and complex. Justin lives with his adult sister (Amy Madigan) and the camera catches him spying on her while she towels off in the bathroom. Later, he whips himself to atone. Justin also has the power to change the mind of a wayward parishioner after Justin demands the man donate a building to be a church for migrant workers.

Though perpetually covered in dirt, Ben is a gifted innocent who just wants to do right by people. He fears his powers and doesn't understand how to use them or the legacy that allowed him to inherit them. In early episodes, Ben finds a photo of his mother as a young woman, which sends him on a search for his father, once a carnival performer, who is now believed to be dead.

"I've been calling it 'Twin Peaks' with logic," said Anderson at an HBO party in July. "The plot slowly unfolds with layers and layers and surprises deep inside."

"Carnivale" creator Daniel Knauf has heard the "Twin Peaks" comparisons and they don't bother him, but he said what makes "Carnivale" distinct is that its complex mythology was completely written before a single scene was committed to film.

"I know what the last frame of the last episode is," Knauf said, standing in the shadow of the "Carnivale" Ferris wheel on the Warner Bros. backlot. "I'm a big believer in the 'bottom of the iceberg school,' where you can just see 10 percent of what's there, and you get this sense of this huge magnificent thing underneath. We, as writers, know what it is, and we're drawing on it on a regular basis. We know where we're going with it and I think it shows in the writing. There's an assuredness. There are rules to this particular little game."

Viewers will need patience to play along and allow themselves to be taken on a journey for which there are few immediate answers. But those will come, producers promise. Knauf envisions "Carnivale" running at least three seasons, but no more than six to tell his story.

HBO executives have encouraged producers to take their time. That included rethinking one significant aspect of the series. The original "Carnivale" pilot, filmed almost two years ago, did not include the character of Justin's sister.

"In the original pilot, Brother Justin was kind of boring, a fully realized heavy, so they pulled back and said let's see how he gets there," Clancy Brown explained. "It buys us a lot of psychological depth."

So if Justin is the devil's representative on Earth, who is Ben? Knauf played coy when confronted with that question.

"The curve ball we throw into things is free will," Knauf said. "You have reluctant saviors and I would think you'd have a reluctant destroyer as well. ... It's not a straight out story for either character. Both of them are tortured by their faith."

Knauf came up with the "Carnivale" idea years ago while walking in a park as a carnival was being set up. "It was early in the morning and they weren't open yet and there were people sleeping under the trucks. ... This is their life. This is where they live, and it's like an invisible world and the whole thing sort of fascinated me and it grew from there."

Unlike the story, the show's title is more arbitrary.

"I could be really coy about it and say there's some big meaning to it, but what I always thought about was, this is this crummy like carnival moving through these crummy little towns," Knauf said. "There was just something kind of delicious about the idea sort of adding this accented 'a' and this 'e' at the end. ... It was basically the built-in irony of it, more than anything else."

The entire "Carnivale" cast is up to snuff, but it's particularly gratifying to see Anderson playing a normal character who just happens to be a little person.

"This is the break of all time," Anderson said. "This is a truly multidimensional character with pathos and difficulties, strengths and weaknesses. It's one of the best roles I've ever seen written for any little person."

Stahl, who exuded a similar likable vulnerability in "T3," gets the Okie accent right and meshes well with Duvall.

Brown has always been a powerful actor and he's used to his full potential in "Carnivale." His preacher seems potentially evil in tonight's premiere, but proves to be far more complicated in later episodes.

Brown compared "Carnivale" to "The Last Temptation of Christ" meets "Paradise Lost."

"Justin doesn't really do anything except confront people with the truth, and then they act on the truth," Brown said. "Justin doesn't actually do violence to anyone," although he's often nearby when it occurs. Justin talks to one man before he commits suicide and bellows at another before he has a heart attack.

"He was a pretty fat guy, don't you think?" Brown said, defending his character. "You can say Justin did it because he got upset and yelled, but will that stand up in a court of law? Does he act consciously? I don't think so. We make the connection cinematically, but if you look at it objectively, the [dead] guy was a coronary waiting to happen."

"Carnivale" occasionally lapses into self-conscious pretension, but not too often. Similarly, there are moments of weirdness for its own sake. Maybe some of those oddball elements -- a fetus in a jar in an imaginary trailer opens its eyes in episode No. 2 -- will be explained in future episodes.

"Carnivale" is suspenseful and strangely magical and never likely to be as popular as HBO's "The Sopranos" or "Sex and the City." But it has potential to be highly addictive for fans of this unusual programming sub-genre.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 . Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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