Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

TV
cover art

CarnivÀle

Cast: Nick Stahl, Michael J. Anderson, Clancy Brown, Amy Madigan, Adrienne Barbeau, Clea Duvall
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET

(HBO)

No Clear Answers Yet

The clock is ticking, brothers and sisters… counting down to Armageddon.
—Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), “The Day That Was the Day”


Fifteen years ago, Michael J. Anderson played “The Man from Another Place,” a.k.a. “The Dream Dwarf,” on what was then television’s strangest series, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. “The Man” was a backwards-talking midget from another dimension, where the forces of evil resided and plotted. Apparently, time has not diminished Anderson’s appreciation for the macabre, as he now stars in television’s new strangest series, Carnivàle. Here he plays Samson, manager of a traveling circus, who is committed to helping one of his carnies stay a step ahead of sinister forces from that other dimension.


Anderson is not all that these series have in common. Both showcase a struggle between good and evil, taking viewers to a surreal dimension where this struggle is foreshadowed before being played out on our earthly plane. Both feature characters who appear ordinary, but are full of riddles, wisdom, and special “gifts.” Carnivàle, however, does not stage its struggle for the souls of a few individuals in a small town, as in Twin Peaks. The stake this time is the fate of all humanity.


If Carnivàle is not the first show to deal with apocalyptic visions (Buffy saved the world at least once a year), it is the first to present this fight in a historical context. We don’t see prophecy of what is to come, but reflections of what has been. Still, with Carnivàle, nothing is certain.


Set in 1934, five years into the Great Depression, the series’ first season slowly introduced enigmatic primary characters. Now, in season two, their secrets are put into play with more frequency and greater relevance to the story arc. Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), the convict with the power to heal, has emerged as the tragic soul destined to be savior, while Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) has assumed his place as the catalyst for the coming apocalypse. Management (voiced by Linda Hunt), the never-seen man who runs the carnival, schedules the traveling show to benefit Ben in his quest for his missing and, we are led to believe, evil father.


This quest has made Ben the most tortured man on TV. He’s been beaten, buried alive, drugged, paralyzed, and forced to commit murder. He has also appeared in visions and dreams to Brother Justin, who has sent escaped prisoner Varlyn Stroud (John Carroll Lynch) to hunt him. As Justin has also been haunting Ben’s dreams, it’s clear they will eventually face off.


If Justin seems familiar, one need only to flip over to the Christian Broadcast Network to see why. He too has used the media to make a name for himself and build a massive temple of worship from which he will oversee his empire. Justin is doing the work of the anti-Christ with the same flair and enthusiasm as those who claim to be doing the work of Christ today, raising the question: who are the false prophets? Those who claim visions from heaven telling them to lead the masses, or those whose visions lead them quietly in the direction of salvation?


Carnivàle complicates this question in the sheer number of “prophets” it provides. Communication is a major theme here, and many characters receive messages in unusual ways. Ben has gotten clues about his father’s location from the host of freaks he has met, while Justin was sent a mask of Ben that allowed him to see through Ben’s eyes. One carnie, Sophie (Clea Duvall) reads Tarot cards for Ben. And both she and fellow carnie Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), the Snake Charmer, have been getting visits from Sophie’s deceased mother Apollonia (Diane Salinger). During season one, Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) received visions from the dreams of his coworkers, while in season two, Varlyn receives his orders from Justin through radio transmissions no one else can hear.


Still, it is Management who specializes in the most mysterious messages. His knowledge of Ben’s destiny is extensive, and he uses it in a push-me-pull-me game that both repels and intrigues Ben. Management is the organization’s CEO, controlling the direction of his company through the established hierarchy, the road-weary and wise Samson. Toying with his employees’ livelihood for his own gain, Management is also driven to find Ben’s father, Henry Scudder. His intentions remain unclear—he could be the conflicted leader living with his losses in order to obtain a greater good or the heartless boss who doesn’t care who is hurt or used in the quest for “the prize.”


Again, the analogy becomes apparent. In a social environment lacking structure and populated with the disenchanted, business remains the omnipresent force through which forward economic and social motion is achieved, theoretically benefiting both owner and worker. The cynical would chose to believe that this motion was motivated solely by greed, and any benefits the masses reap is purely accidental. Likewise, it is easy to make the same assumptions about the character of Management.


Although set in the past, Carnivàle reflects America today. We’re now seeking clear direction, with choices about whom to should follow. Our desperation for easy answers may cloud the options: we could fall in line with the religious prophets who promise manna while delivering carnage, listen to the corporate hierarchy and hope their directives will make us all better off, or keep searching for that unknown soul who will provide salvation. When he, or she, arrives, will we be so lost in our obsession with pedigree and personality that we will fail to recognize our own deliverance? As on Carnivàle, there are no clear answers yet. While all the players assume their places in the game, the rest of us wait to see what comes next.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


Comments
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
PopMatters' LUCY Giveaway! in PopMatters's Hangs on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.