Originally created 09/15/03

HBO's 'Carnivale' is an irresistible new drama series

NEW YORK -- In describing "Carnivale," HBO's new dramatic series, comparisons to director David Lynch are likely to crop up.

But differences outweigh similarities. As the creator of such films as "Blue Velvet" and the landmark series "Twin Peaks," Lynch typically practices weird-for-weird's-sake while making his characters the butt of his sardonic vision.

By contrast, "Carnivale" keeps its strange little world on equal footing with the viewers'. You are drawn into the same holy war as the Bearded Lady and the Reptile Man: that of Light versus Darkness at the brink of what just might be the apocalypse.

"Carnivale," whose 12-episode run begins at 9:35 p.m. EDT Sunday, is set in 1934, in the midst of a decade-long drought that reduced 250 million acres of farmland to a Dust Bowl across three-quarters of the nation.

Wending its way through this biblical ruin, the carnival happens on a chain-gang fugitive, Ben Hawkins. He is struggling to dig a grave for his dead mother in the parched earth of an Oklahoma homestead that bankers are about to seize. Then, when this meager funeral is over, the carnies spirit him away.

Hawkins (played by Nick Stahl) is a tormented soul - and not just by the unexplained crime for which the law is chasing him. He is afflicted with healing powers he has kept bottled up since childhood. But his effort to repress such mystical impulses is all the harder now, in the company of freaks and outcasts who rouse their ticket-buying public with mystery.

"The people in these towns are asleep. We wake them up," says Sofie (Clea Duvall), an apt observation even though her mother, the troupe's tarot reader, lives life inert in a catatonic state.

Meanwhile, a thousand miles away, a small-town Methodist pastor in California's verdant Central Valley sermonizes on "the titanic sandstorms, the likes of which man has not seen since the days of the prophets. What are they, if not harbingers of the apocalypse?"

However far removed from the carnival's harsh circuit, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) shares the same disturbing dreams that plague Ben Hawkins. And they direct him, or so he believes, to help the desperate Okies pouring into his community.

Clearly Brother Justin's path will cross with Ben's. What then?

Everything is up for grabs on "Carnivale," and, even from a 21st-century vantage point, you can feel its unrest (add Hitler's rise and the Great Depression to the bubbling brew, and you don't have to be a religious zealot to figure God had something he was trying to tell mortals).

Meditative and beautiful in capturing its 1930s era, "Carnivale" is carefully measured as it penetrates a range of different realms - Nature, the occult, Christian faith.

The series occupies itself with stalking (and sometimes fearfully withdrawing from) truths as elusive for the viewer as they are for its heroes. It is weird, all right, but not trying to weird you out. Instead, "Carnivale" aims to gather you in. If you let it, it will.

A sign of its persuasive force is the towering presence of Samson, the dwarf.

Having risen in carnival ranks from sideshow oddity to boss of the whole show, Samson (played by the wonderful Michael J. Anderson) is a wily, charming rascal whose diminutive form is beside the point for his fellow carnies - just as, after only a few minutes, it will be beside the point for the viewer.

For why should anything so obvious be dwelled upon? There is far too much beneath the surface worth exploring.

Item: the mordantly funny "exchanges" between Sofie and Apollonia (Diane Salinger), the catatonic mother she cares for as well as psychically connects with.

"I just think you see what you want to see," Sofie chides her mom as she bathes her in the second episode.

There's a pause to "hear" Mom's "response."

"Please!" Sofie protests.

Another pause, then Sofie erupts with, "Forget it!," as if to cut her mother off.

The creator and executive producer of "Carnivale" is Daniel Knauf, whose credits include an HBO film, "Blind Justice," and the eerie, short-lived CBS series "Wolf Lake," for which he served as consulting producer two years ago.

It could be Knauf is about to become much better known thanks to "Carnivale," which mulls the fateful day when "man forever traded away wonder for reason," as Samson recalls in the series' opening moments. Somehow, "Carnivale" helps its viewers to both wonder and reason.

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