It’s amazing how a movie or a series can come on the scene with flourish and acclaim then disappear to be largely forgotten. One such show was a fascinating dieselpunk series that ran briefly on HBO: Carnivàle.
Carnivàle debuted September 14th 2003, breaking all records for an HBO series at that time and winning numerous awards. The second season unfortunately didn’t bring in the audience like the first resulting in its premature cancellation.
Set in America during the mid-1930’s, Carnivàle is a classic tale of the battle between good and evil, which is explained to the audience in the opening of first episode by the actor Michael J. Anderson (known for the television series Twin Peaks and who plays a Carnivàle character named Samson) . We are first introduced to Ben Hawkins (played by Nick Stahl) who comes across with a simple but noble innocence.
As soon as Clancy Brown, who played the deliciously evil Victor Kruger in the movie Highlander, appears playing a minister named Brother Justin Crowe it quickly becomes obvious which characters are going to represent which opposing values.
The show’s creators and producers reportedly took great pains to try to recreate the time and feel of America during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. I can say that without a doubt they succeeded. In fact, it was in the areas of art direction, cinematography, costumes, and hairstyling that it won four of its six Emmys.
The opening to Carnivàle is fascinating in its use of tarot cards, which it incorporates with documentary footage from the 1930s giving you the impression that the events themselves were hidden within the art of the very cards. The opening is made all the more intriguing by the theme music that is wonderfully eerie and haunting.
Along with the amazing cinematography and artistry, Carnivàle’s storyline is infused with the supernatural and a sense of dread. Several characters in the travelling carnival who take on Hawkins have telepathic abilities that are frightening to both them and others. Hawkins and Crowe, as well as other characters, repeatedly have bizarre and confusing visions as well as powers that they don’t understand.
All of the characters in the series are shown as complex. Though they may be pimping, prostituting, scamming, or worse each character is shown as being very human with both good and bad attributes. The viewer will find him or herself caring about all of the characters, even at times Brother Crowe, throughout the series.
What can I say about the acting other than amazing? Stahl, Brown, Anderson and the entire cast give outstanding performances throughout the series.
A word of warning is required concerning Carnivàle. HBO seemed to pull out all stops with the freedom granted to it by cable television. The series contains scenes with graphic nudity, sex, language and violence. It’s certainly for mature audiences only.
Carnivàle contains all of the elements of what was referred to by Piecraft and Ottens as a Dark Ottensian dieselpunk (“Discovering Dieselpunk,” The Gatehouse Gazette, issue 1). It’s certainly Ottensian in that it takes place during the interbellum era. Yet, unlike most Ottensian dieselpunk movies which tend to be positive and optimistic, such as Sky Captain or the Indiana Jones series, Carnivàle is dark, violent and infused with an overt air of fear and impending doom.
Both seasons are currently available on DVD. I highly recommend Carnivàle as part of anyone’s dieselpunk collection.