Tuesday, October 30, 2012


So, when I work out on my elliptical machine at my house I usually watch something on blu-ray or DVD.  Watching shows keeps me focused on something other than the fact that I'm just doing exercise (which, in and of itself, I don't particularly enjoy).
For the last couple/few months I've been watching Carnivale, a series that was on HBO for two seasons from 2003 to 2006.

For those who don't really know much about Carnivale (personally, I knew next to nothing about it when I started watching), it's a story that takes place in the Dust Bowl during the Depression era 1930s.  The plotline involves parallel and ultimately intersecting stories dealing with a travelling carnival (as one might guess) and an evangelical preacher.  Carnivale is, by turns, grittily realistic, surreal, magical, and bizarre.
Carnivale has shades of all kinds of other work, from Faulkner to Lynch to Homer.  The show deals with questions of good vs. evil, divine righteousness vs. flawed humanity, destiny vs. free will, human nature, and numerous other really big issues that play out out over the course of the series on an epic scale.
Carnivale is obviously meant to be a show with a complex mythology, an abundance of symbolism, and layer upon layer of meaning.  Rarely a moment passes by when the audience isn't encouraged to ponder the metaphorical implications of a given scene or to assess the actions of a character in terms of a larger context.  I felt like the layers of metaphor kept things mentally stimulating, but in another sense, I felt like maybe the focus on these literary devices kept a pretty good show from being a really great one.
The characters on Carnivale just really weren't exceptionally well written.  The majority of them- especially, unfortunately, the protagonist, Ben Hawkins- just didn't feel especially sympathetic or relatable.  I felt like the writers were so busy carrying out the underlying plotlines of the show's mythology that they sort of neglected many of the smaller human elements that make characters interesting and engaging to watch.  The characters on the show moved the plot forward, but they didn't feel like people that you might actually run into out in the real world.  Characters occupy spaces on Carnivale (e.g., the scheming harlot, the power hungry wizard, the stalwart guardian/protector, etc.), but very rarely do characters break out of the sort of stereotypical boxes into which they've been painted.  This probably makes the characters useful as archetypes and symbols, but it makes them less interesting as people.  I felt like once you understood a character's place in the overall plot structure of the show, you could expect that character to behave like "that sort of person" instead of like a living, breathing individual.
The show was also hampered a bit, I thought, by some of the dialogue, which felt clumsy at times both in form and delivery.  The writing was definitely striving for dialects of the period, but the words sometimes came off as hackneyed and less than natural.
These things being said, Carnivale was a hugely ambitious show with some really interesting ideas, a unique sense of style, and thought provoking plotlines.  When it failed, it often failed in execution rather than in concept (although the failures were still details of writing execution and not typically the sole fault of the actors).  If Carnivale could have been carried off with some of the same character development that The Wire, Deadwood, or Treme possess, it would have been one of the strongest shows to ever hit the screen.
Carnivale, first airing in 2003, came of age at a time when television producers were still relatively new to the idea of nuanced, complex television dramas with long, overarching plotlines and lots of room to build characters.  A decade or two has now passed in which television has been moving toward more well developed programs and away from the "adventure of the week" model.  Creators have been figuring out how to tell stories that feel more like good, long novels than short stories.  Carnivale may have suffered a bit by way of arriving during the early stages of this transition.
At any rate, if I had to sum the show up, I would say that it was filled with interesting, original ideas, but, in the end, it was also a project with a reach that exceeded its grasp.  I wouldn't rank it among the best of the shows that I've seen, but it was still far more interesting than many, and I came away from it without having any regrets about having taken the time to watch it.  I'd rather watch a unique show land a little off target any day than watch a cliched program score a soulless "success".
I've certainly watched worse things while sweating and huffing and puffing during my workouts...

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