Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Carnivàle vs. The "Kill 'em Young" Manifesto

"Golly, but I miss those 'Bottle Episodes'!"

I took my time getting around to watching Carnivàle. There were so many ways I could experience disappointment. The DVD packaging was fabulously evocative, suggesting the creative love-child of Flannery O'Connor and Stephen King. What if the show didn't live up to my expectations? Worse still, what if it did?

When I finally sat down to watch, the show hit a happy middle note. The episodic development of characters and narrative had a charmingly primal roughness. Season 1 was all ennui and suggestion, fostering expectations that the series might fold itself into a Lynchean sort of Fabulist Mobius Strip.

Instead, shortly after the midway point in Season 2, questions began to be answered. For a show as grievously truncated as Carnivàle, there are some very clear pluses and minuses to this particular tack. On the plus side, once certain pieces fall into place it's fun to go back to the early episodes and see where surprise conclusions were pointedly alluded to. On the minus side, it becomes crystal clear exactly where this television series was pointed and, frankly, the trip doesn't look worth the ride. Which brings me back to the plus side: I'm as grateful for what I've been spared as I am for what I've seen.

If you're among the legions of disappointed viewers who still want to know what was going to happen next, I can tell you. The carnival was going to split into factions pitted against each other by shady manipulative types. The guys you thought were good were going to cross the line with their behaviour, until the fateful confrontation between Brother Justin and Ben Hawkens is mired in profound ambivalence. Both camps would experience defections, and confusion of identity. There were going to be surprise resurrections, as well as prophecies that were either beacons of hope, or cunning deceits. And finally, by the end of Season Six, there would be an apocalyptic sloughing off of . . . .

Ah, but you've already seen this show. That's because the guy whose hand was heaviest on the till at the end of Carnivàle's first season bolted to another network, where he saw the thing to its proper completion. I'm talking about Ron Moore. And, yes: I'm talking about Battlestar Galactica, which managed to slip directly into its Decadent Phase at the very end of Season Two, and stay there to its conclusion in Season Four. And which, coincidentally enough, has a narrative arc that bears a striking resemblance to the Carnivàle “bible” laid out by creator Daniel Knauf at the beginning of that series (viewable here, at the HBOCarnivale Discussion Group, as The Gospel of Knaufius).

Another trait Galactica has in common with Carnivàle is its “bottle” episodes, where the epic comes to a screeching halt and the characters get to interact with each other and set up scenarios for subsequent episodes. These episodes are usually given over to the junior writers in the stable, while the seniors figure out how to plant teasers that lead to the big surprises that keep viewers hooked. Those are the episodes that get me looking at my watch and wondering if I couldn't just skip ahead to the next barn-burner (the answer is usually, “no” because I will have missed five minutes, or even 30 seconds, of crucial “reveal” planted by the Story Chief).

Even a show as brilliantly executed as The Wire couldn't escape these occasional doldrums, which is as it must be, I suppose. It does keep me wondering, though, if there is any creative team that has the wherewithal to keep generating narrative momentum for more than three seasons. I'll let you know if I ever find one that does. In fact, stay tuned: our family has just discovered this wacky six-season show that looks like it might have some potential. It's called Lost.

Post-it note: over at the Onion AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff is giving Carnivàle some frame-by-frame analysis. His attentiveness more than makes up for my crass generalisations.


Cowtown Pattie said...

You've just discovered Lost?

Lost lost me as a viewer about midway, then I picked it back up for the last 2 seasons.

I keep using the series as my ruler for judgement on subsequent new series. Not one has measured up the enjoyment of Lost.

There are so many nuances and red herrings, and book references and philosophical metaphors, who could get bored?

Lost had GREAT characters, and yeah, there were those occasional plot groaners, but all in all Lost never insulted my intelligence and was always a step ahead of me.

I want to re-watch it from the beginning. Want to catch the nuggets of fabulousness I missed the first go round.

Like you, I had high hopes that Carnivale would be better than it was. Still, glad it was produced.

Whisky Prajer said...

I didn't want to start Lost until (a) it was finished, and (b) everyone in the family was old enough to get into it. I knew that moment had come when the elder daughter came back from a sleep-over talking about how great the show was. A little beef-cake goes a long way, it seems.

Cowtown Pattie said...

Ah, Sawyer.

Be still my beating heart....

Whisky Prajer said...

Ain't no flies you, CP! (Of course, Locke was never in the running for "show hottie.")

Joel said...

Okay, so I've now tracked down and watched both seasons of Carnivale based on your recommendations.
It was....well, it was very much like you say. Interesting, but hard to sit through. Those bottle episodes had me itching for the fast forward button on my remote. An interesting idea, but the pacing was just all wrong, and the plot was teased out for far too long before it began to make sense. And at the end of the day, there's not enough there to make me want to sit through another 4 seasons. And yet, there are some brilliant ideas in here: the idea of combining history with mythology, the romance of the old carnivals.