Carnivàle - Season 2 (2004-2005)
I mostly enjoyed the first season of 'Carnivàle', but found it to be a bit slow and meandering. It set up a wonderful bunch of varied misfit characters and an interesting premise based around the classic conflict between good and evil, but one where the characters themselves taken at face value couldn't easily be lumped into one category or the other (well, except maybe Brother Justin). With the story taking place in 1930s USA and focusing on a traveling carnival, the show had a unique setting and atmosphere.
The first season, in a nutshell, introduced the characters and hinted at the mythology of the show, and ended with the two warriors of light and dark starting to become fully aware of their powers and destinies. The young escaped convict Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) had just killed the cunning Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) and used his powers to transfer life back to Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), the snake charmer woman Lodz had killed. In doing so he realizes the extent of his powers, and enters into an agreement with the mysterious Management (Linda Hunt) to track down his father, Henry Scudder (John Savage). Management and Scudder were the previous generation of warriors of Light and Dark, and Hawkins needs to get to Scudder before the evil Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) finds him and takes his powers by killing him. Management charges the dwarf Samson (Michael J. Anderson), who runs the day to day affairs of the carnival, with helping Hawkins.
The second season unfolds with Hawkins on the trail of Scudder and the whole carnival being dragged along with him. While this main story plays out, there are several sub stories featuring various members of the carnival and their personal dealings. Meanwhile, Brother Justin builds an encampment for his mission, and through his radio show starts drawing thousands of supporters to him, thereby building up his power base. He sends an escaped convict, his archangel, to hunt down Scudder. His sister Iris (Amy Madigan) aids him while at the same time possibly plotting his downfall together with the paralyzed Reverend Balthus (Ralph Waite).
Being an HBO series allowed 'Carnivàle' to be edgier than regular mainstream shows. It's decidedly unconventional in terms of milieu and use of violence, swearing and nudity (though they seem to go overboard with the latter sometimes). There's a grittiness and rawness to the show that makes it feel true to its time and place despite its fantasy trappings, and anachronistic moral sensibilities are thankfully absent. The production values are excellent, with everything from the costumes and makeup to the locations and vehicles exuding authenticity. The bleak but attractive visuals and the somber music add to the atmosphere. If anything the show is sometimes too relentlessly bleak, and the few humorous moments that come courtesy of the more colourful characters like Samson are a welcome respite.
On the carnival side, the characters are - despite being oddball and in a line of work few can relate to - understandable and sympathetic, and their friendships, loves, and enmities form an integral part of each episode. On the downside, some of the personal stories get a bit repetitive and take up a little too much time from the now much improved primary narrative. In the first season, Hawkins was aimless and just hung out, occasionally getting himself involved in something or the other, which is fine for a while but not for a whole season. Thankfully that problem is rectified here, with some real impetus to keep things interesting as Hawkins crosses the paths of dangerous people while tracking down Scudder and eventually setting himself on the path to confront Brother Justin. Brother Justin's storyline has also received a boost of adrenaline, although I still found it to be the least interesting, mostly because it is tiresomely repetitive and also because the characters are far less compelling. Justin himself is evil to the point of caricature at times, and his 'Preacher' shtick is often hard to watch without smirking.
The cast is almost uniformly excellent. There are few recognizable faces in the crowd, and the fact that the cast has some unconventional looking actors makes for a refreshing change from the typical pretty people that populate the media. These people are made to look unwashed and grungy, as they should be for the story they're in. The standout performances come from Nick Stahl as Hawkins, the weary and unwitting hero who has a quiet nobility to him, and Michael J, Anderson as the cocky and resourceful dwarf Samson. The two of the make a great team. Clancy Brown's performance is almost great; he's excellent in exhibiting the evil nature of the Preacher, but that malice seems to override every other aspect of his performance to such an extent that the scenes in which he's meant to appear earnest fail more often than not. Apart from that somewhat major blemish, there's not a weak performance in the bunch.
The second season of 'Carnivàle' is much more focused in its storytelling and is much stronger as a result, which is why the cancellation of the show is a bit of a shame (a sentiment I wouldn't have expressed on the merits of the first season alone). It was apparently meant to run for six seasons, and I can only guess that it would have become far more epic and interesting as the story progressed. As it stands the first two seasons make for some unique and compelling albeit occasionally sluggish entertainment that is worthwhile, even if it is ultimately incomplete.