Directed by Lots o' people (2005)
Reviewed by MaT, added on Aug 15 2005
I first saw Carnivāle over a year ago and recently borrowed the first season dvd from my good buddy Brady and decided to re-watch them. Though I loved this show when it first came out, being completely engrossed in the saga of Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe and proudly proclaiming the greatness of the show to any one who would listen, a second viewing has changed my opinion somewhat. More on that in a second.
HBO recently cancelled this show after its second season, which is a shame because it was the most interesting thing on television. Sadly, television and movie audiences have gradually fallen towards "instant gratification" syndrome, meaning that if somebody doesn't get killed or have sex within the running time, they won't pay much attention and tune out. This was the downfall of Carnivāle, a show that was lacking on action and meticulously drew out its various storylines at a snail's pace. The plot and story was confusing and at many times didn't seem to go anywhere. Indeed, Hawkins and Crowe, the two who are destined to battle each other out, never even ran into each other, with the exception of a couple dream sequences. At times the series seemed to wander aimlessly, never fully knowing who to focus on, especially since there were so many interesting characters to choose from. Needless to say, the confusing plot, slow pace, and lack of "instant gratification" turned viewers off and HBO cut their losses.
After viewing the first season again, I can readily say that it isn't as good as I thought. Don't get me wrong, there is a ton of stuff to like (the in depth character development, the mystery of "Management", and the puzzle of trying to figure out just what the hell is going on in Ben's head), but you can see that the brains behind the show, Daniel Knauf, hadn't quite grasped the concept of balance. The show bounces back and forth from exciting to disappointing like a yo-yo. I have the sinking suspicion that by the half-way point of the first season, HBO was telling them to get things moving along because the series suddenly picks up momentum at about episode 7. Too bad the viewers didn't stick around because the season finale is simply fantastic and is easily the best episode of the entire season.
I really like Carnivāle. I don't want to give the impression that I'm ragging on it, I just wasn't as impressed on the second go around as I was the first. It's still one helluva cool story and all the acting is outstanding. I cannot, however, recommend the box set. The only extras to be found are 3 commentaries tracks (out of 12 episodes), and a fairly interesting behind-the-scenes featurette. The box set is sadly lacking, especially since it runs around $80.
Carnivāle is definitely worth checking out if you are the patient type who doesn't mind a story that is put together like a puzzle and will keep you guessing. The acting and production values are top notch as is typical with most HBO productions and the depression era cinematography is beautiful. Give it a shot, just don't buy it on dvd.