Descriptions of HBO's Depression-era drama Carnivàle often fall back on comparisons to David Lynch. There's some family likeness to Carnivàle's baroque relationships, submerged horrors, and frank nods to the supernatural, not to mention the central role played by Michael J. Anderson, Twin Peaks' backward-talking dwarf. But Carnivàle writer-creator Daniel Knauf favors a more arid tone than Lynch, and his beautifully shot dustbowl gothic focuses squarely on the wrung-out humanity behind all the ominous portent.
Nick Stahl (In The Bedroom) stars as a naïve young chain-gang fugitive whose mother has convinced him that his healing powers are a sin and a curse. When Stahl loses his mother and their Oklahoma home on the same day, he's adopted by a shabby traveling carnival run by Anderson on behalf of "management," a shadowy power that lurks behind red curtains in a locked trailer. As Stahl finds his feet, he frequently falls into the background while the series concentrates on the carnival's more colorful characters, like catatonic, telepathic fortuneteller Diane Salinger and her put-upon daughter Clea DuVall, blind psychic Patrick Bauchau, or voluptuous, blowsy cooch-dancer Cynthia Ettinger and her daughters/apprentices. The carnival hides so much low-key magic that Stahl's healing touch seems to fit right in, but as his dreams become dangerous, his mysterious past begins emerging, and Bauchau tries to control him with scraps of information and the promise of more, Stahl vacillates over whom he trusts and what he wants. Meanwhile, in California, Stahl's opposite number Clancy Brown slowly transforms from creepy, devout Methodist minister to creepy apostate to creepy revivalist, all while coming to terms with his own supernatural gifts.
At times, Carnivàle devolves into a sex-soaked soap opera: Even with great powers stirring around them, the carnies are bored, jaded, and stuck in an environment every bit as insular as the barren small towns they play. Between shows, there's little to do but smoke, drink, and screw, and the mechanics of who's sleeping with whom (or just hoping to) become twisted and ugly. Sex and religion form the show's opposed poles, offering alternate ways to escape and to control, praise, and punish others. But for all the strong emotions both pastimes evoke, Carnivàle is a slow, cerebral, chilly series, given more to long tracking shots and meaningful glances than action or confrontation. Occasionally, the deliberate pacing becomes stilted, but for the most part, an excellent cast makes the most of the tensions simmering under all the complicated interwoven relationships.
Content aside, Carnivàle looks terrific. Its five technical Emmys (for cinematography, art direction, and costuming, among others) were well-earned, and its shot composition is poster-perfect. The first-season box set boasts some annoyingly wasteful designwith 12 one-hour episodes sprawled out over six discs, it's hard to justify the limited extras. But given season one's terrific, understated, cliffhanger-packed climax, the Carnivàle box set isn't so much a standalone package as a well-timed background teaser for the new season, launching this month on HBO.