HBO’s Most Elemental Series
The difference between TV and film is that nobody kicks you out of the cinema before the film is over. When a network cancels a series it strands you without a conclusion and fails to repay the hours you invested in their production.
Viewers had their fingers badly burned by the damaging ‘Lost’, after the writers revealed they had never planned a story arc in advance. So why would anyone be fooled again?
The makers of HBO’s ‘Carnivale’ – now already a decade old – did have a plan. They said they even knew what the final frame of the series would be, The show gradually revealed the level of HBO’s ambitions. A series about the complex nature of good and evil, it was filled with myth and allegory, set in dustbowl Depression-era America but also referencing the Trinity tests. The elaborate period narrative set the stage for the current explosion of cinematic storytelling on television, with disorienting sidesteps into other pasts, including seemingly surreal events that involve a bear in British WW1 trenches.
It was a slow-burner, heavy on atmosphere, a rewarder of patience, and dared to go with an enigmatic, barely likeable lead. There are no handsome men and women here but the hardscrabble faces of the period – although it wasn’t short on star firepower, featuring Amy Madigan, Adrienne Barbeau, Michael J Anderson, Clancy Brown, John Savage, John Hannah and Nick Stahl.
The series refused to be pigeonholed and was impossible to second-guess. There was no clue as to what might happen from one episode to the next, beyond knowing that the young roustabout gifted with the power to heal and the vision-suffering preacher would eventually meet in cataclysmic circumstances. But who represented good and who evil? This was not resolved until season 2. If you have any doubts about the complexity of the series, check out its mythology here or read ‘Carnivale and the American Grotesque: Critical Essays on the HBO Series’.
Whether or not you bought into the plot – a set of popular American tropes involving freaks, the depression and faith revivals – what it did was introduce a number of ambitious innovations that were simply a few years ahead of their time. Musically it created montages of ethnic themes, long intercut sequences involving the key players in which their actions paralleled each other. Signs, portents and clues were scattered throughout the scripts and signalled on screen in a variety of ways using sound and colour. The tone was closer to the world of David Lynch than that of any other show.
There’s a critical argument that says ‘Carnivale’ simply bit off more than it could chew. Could it really have sustained and developed its big themes, bringing them to a satisfactory conclusion?
The problem was that the starry cast and expensive production design brought the cost to $2 million an episode, and the slow pacing meant that it would only ever achieve cult status. Its legacy lives on in those montages, and has informed almost every HBO series since. No other television series has been so steeped in history, spirituality and occultism, and years later it retains a cult-like following.
This felt like the point at which US TV and film started to separate. As Hollywood movies grew less original and more juvenile, TV became more complex and adult. I fell in love with the show, and felt let down by HBO when it was cancelled despite returning audiences. But in a way it doesn’t matter that the story fails to conclude, because the sheer pleasure of watching this strange story pass by is enough.
Will I trust HBO again, though? They’d need to work hard to convince me.