It can be hard to justify adding another TV show to your roster of viewing material, especially when there are dozens of new series to explore every month and keeping up with them can seem like a full-time job. There’s never been a greater time in television history to be a genre lover, with a greater array of ideas and stories on-screen than ever, which means you’re more likely to discover something that seems to have been made just for you, but makes finding that sweet spot all the harder.
For me, that sweet spot came many years before so-called Peak TV, in the form of a too-quickly-canceled HBO show that merged magic, drama, science fiction, fantasy, and social commentary into a series like no other. If it had been made today, Carnivàle would be one of the great cult hits of the year, but alas, we only have two seasons to share with the world, and I have made it my one-woman mission in life to make sure everyone discovers this unique gem of genre storytelling.
Carnivàle is the age-old story of good versus evil set against the backdrop of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Following a traveling circus led by a mysterious unseen management, they encounter a young man named Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) who possesses unusual powers of healing that come with a great cost, and soon he starts to have visions of an apocalyptic fate for the planet. Alongside them, the story follows Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a Methodist preacher who discovers similar powers and seeks to use them for the good of the community, but slowly strays from the path of righteousness. To sum up the feel of the show: Imagine if John Steinbeck, Stephen King, and Angela Carter all ended up hanging out at the same rundown diner in the desert and spun a few stories together over cheap coffee and yellow-tinged newspapers, with David Lynch doing a few edits along the way.
Looking back, Daniel Knauf’s magnum opus was probably a bit too ambitious for TV in 2003, even for HBO, as much as they massively hyped its premiere. This wasn't a series that rushed ahead with its thrills or reveled in splashy action scenes. With a rumored cost of $4 million an episode, Carnivàle was a lush slow burn of a drama that prized character and myth over plotting, although it also happened to be damn good at crafting a labyrinthine mythology with an array of tantalizing plot threads. The colorful cast of the circus itself, many of them some of the most fascinating and fully fleshed characters on TV of the era, each had their own intriguing stories that tied into the wider themes of legend and history. With a murderer’s row of acting talent on display – Stahl, Brown, Amy Madigan, Clea DuVall, Adrienne Barbeau (an original scream queen and the voice of Catwoman on Batman: The Animated Series), and Twin Peaks’s Michael J. Anderson – this was a show that didn’t waste a moment of time, even in the quiet moments.
While the show was deceptively languid in its pacing, Carnivàle was better than anything else on TV at the time in creating an overwhelming sense of dread. This was a world of real suffering as the circus struggled to stay above water in the middle of the desert, where customers were few and far between, and the increasing desperation filled the screen as the series went on. Even without Ben’s terrifying visions of a mushroom-shaped cloud that will consume the world, the sensation of hopelessness is all around them. Nobody can escape the dust.
Combining the historical context of the time with imagery and mythos from biblical, Masonic and traveler lore, Knauf imbues the genre elements with the contemporary struggles of man that would plague the decade: Magic can be wonderful, but in this world it is merely another method of pain, and it will do little to stave off humanity’s own hubris or penchant for darkness. The folk tales of travelers and the Old Testament are used to reflect the era’s major changes, from the influx of migration to the American East to the rise of the right wing and increasing power of controversial religious figures like Father Coughlin. While telling a historical story through a genre lens, this show about taking on the rising evil of fascism has never been more relevant.
Carnivàle isn’t always an easy watch; it’s a series full of people struggling to get by, it features moments of shocking violence (including some against women), and it demands near-infinite levels of patience from its audience (warning: it also ended on a massive cliffhanger that was never resolved). Sometimes the plotting is dizzying in its surreal styling, evoking the sensation of prophesying the future in a horrid nightmare, and in the second season it does drop that impeccable calmness in favor of a more rushed expository focus (cancellation was on the horizon and Knauf knew it), but few shows reward the audience like Carnivàle, especially on your second watch. You see every piece fall into place, and it suddenly hits you just how well-constructed this show really is.
For genre lovers, Carnivàle is the great circus story you didn’t know you needed: It’s a fable of pre-apocalyptic mysticism that evokes memories of everything from the aforementioned Twin Peaks to pulp crime of the 1950s to a dash of The X-Files; it’s a lavish period piece that’s not afraid to let its impeccable historical detailing get worn and dirty; it’s a disturbing descent into the bleakness of humanity through the lens of the fantastical, and it’s 100% its own thing. Carnivàle may be long gone, but those two blissful seasons are still available to watch, and it’s not too late to pick them up and discover your new favorite thing. It’s only the end of the world you’re missing out on.