Carnivàle: The Complete First Season

On its surface, HBO television series Carnivàle appeared to be another in a series of cable-supported dramas outside the formula police procedural and medical productions. And it certainly is. But unlike its surface — which chronicles a Depression-era travelling carnie show — Carnivàle is about much more than just the true-life tales of its inhabitants. Especially with the opportunity to absorb the show with some sense of perspective, it turns out to be about much bigger, broader things: good and evil, human responsibility and the nature of reality. That's not to say that even if this was all surface that would be a bad thing. On the contrary, as human drama goes, Carnivàle ranks with the best. It centres on Ben Hawkins (Terminator 3's Nick Stahl), a young brooder who may or may not be "the chosen one." He gets picked up by the carnival run by Samson (Michael J. Anderson, who danced and spoke backward so memorably for David Lynch in Twin Peaks); Samson answers to "management," a mysterious, unseen deity. Hawkins connects to and clashes with his fellow carnies: the cancan girls, the "rousties," the freak show participants. They travel through dustbowl states of the American south under the vague guidance of "management," always haunted by a sense that their journey is leading them to a place where their fates have already been decided. The central mystery involves Ben Hawkins, who appears to have a healing power that he's not willing to acknowledge and that his fellow travellers are unable to ignore. But there's another half to this show: the story of Brother Justin, a California preacher who believes he's being spoken to by God. He abandons his ministry to start a new church for migrant workers; he goes on a "vision quest" that leaves him in an insane asylum, but throughout this 12-episode first season mostly we hold our breath to find out exactly who or what Brother Justin is. It's clear from the outset that Brother Justin and Ben Hawkins have an intertwined fate, but it's not giving away too many secrets to reveal that this famed showdown never comes. At least not yet. But in looking at Carnivàle on DVD, away from the weekly rhythms and expectations of episodic television, its narrative arc is much clearer. What seemed, one week at a time, like some foot-dragging now comes across like an intelligent, well-plotted mystery; one that won't even begin to pay off until well into the second season (if then), which begins in January. Carnivàle seems like a program destined to not be fully appreciated in its time: only when the full arc is complete will we really be able to understand what creator Daniel Knauf is up to. The special features on this set — episode commentaries and a "making of" — do little illuminate the mysteries that lurk below its surface. For that, we'll have to wait. (HBO/Warner)