Roll up, roll up
The second season of the supernatural suspense Carnivàle is coming to town.
Would-be pop princesses and stadium filling boy bands are all understandably afraid of that ‘tricky’ second album: either celebrity status is assured or else the resulting one hit wonder is banished to the annals of music trivia forever. Similarly, television shows can cement their success by delivering a spectacular second helping that surpasses the debut (Sex And The City and 24), or crash and burn with a second rate second season (One Tree Hill). Such a test now faces the award-winning Carnivàle, whose next instalment hopes to outshine its predecessor when it premieres on America Plus this week. We’re expecting all the supernatural fun of the fair.
For those unfortunate enough to have missed the first series, Carnivàle follows the lives of Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) – an 18-year-old escaped convict, taken in by a travelling carnival after the death of his mother – and Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), an eerily charismatic evangelist. Despite living seemingly unrelated lives, the two cross paths through apocalyptic visions and shared supernatural powers.
The show is set during the realistically staged Great Depression in the United States of America, and is surrounded by a beautifully-crafted cast of freaks and weirdos including Siamese twins, a bearded lady, a snake charmer, and a strong man, all headed by the troupe’s dwarf ringmaster (Michael J. Anderson) who communicates with the unseen ‘Management’. The cinematography of Carnivàle in both seasons is quite stunning.
But season one proved little more than a lengthy (and self-indulgent) prologue to the forthcoming season, its storyline dawdling along like the carnival caravan itself, lurching across California’s dust bowl. The long and winding journey only ever hinted at a showdown between its two titans Ben and Brother Justin, while a slew of surreal moments forced viewers to prove their allegiance, tuning in week after week, to get the smallest scrap of a storyline development.
The good news is that the opening episode on Wednesday is more focused than any of its predecessors. There are more plot and character revelations in this opener than in the rest of the debut season put together, and the story has now been pushed to the fore. Over the next 12 weeks viewers will at long last get some eagerly anticipated answers, as Ben and Brother Justin embark on a collision course that could determine the fate of the world.
Heightened by media hype and littered with comparisons to David Lynch’s equally weird Twin Peaks, this dark supernatural suspense, filled with magic and mayhem, was always going to achieve a cult following. Series two should now clinch mainstream success too. Perhaps winning five Emmys last year has given the Carnivàle cast and crew a well deserved confidence boost, which may be why the show is more relaxed and self-assured second time around.
A quick precy, for fans of the show: as Ben’s spiritual powers evolve, Management exposes him to the disasters that will confront the world if he doesn’t identify and conquer his nemesis, Brother Justin. In order to do this, Ben must find his father, Henry Scudder (John Savage), who holds a crucial piece of the puzzle for Ben, and for Brother Justin as well. To this end Brother Justin employs a new ‘Apostle’ – a prison inmate named Varlyn Stroud (John Carroll Lynch), while he continues spreading the Word to the weak and impoverished masses in his spiritual web. With time running out, Ben and Justin finally go to battle.
There is precious little lingering on the show’s eccentric elements in season two. The story is clearer and its supernatural elements are handled in a far more disciplined way. Carnivàle has gone from being simply a very good show to one that is compulsive weekly viewing. Even if you stumbled across season one and were nonplussed by the meandering plot, you shouldn’t linger on your first impression: like the carnival’s merry band of quirky oddballs, there is more than meets the eye to Carnivàle. Michelle Byrne.
Carnivàle seaon two starts on Wednesday November 9 at 23.00.