Carnivàle is an American television series set in the United States during the Great Depression. In tracing the lives of two disparate groups of people, its overarching story depicts the battle between good and evil and the struggle between free will and destiny; the storyline mixes Christian theology with gnosticism and Masonic lore, particularly that of the Knights Templar. The show was filmed in Santa Clarita, California, and other Southern Californian locations.
Carnivàle was produced by HBO and ran for two seasons between September 14, 2003 and March 27, 2005. The show was created by Daniel Knauf, who also served as executive producer with Ronald D. Moore and Howard Klein. The incidental music was composed by Jeff Beal. Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown starred as Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe, respectively.
Early reviews praised the style of Carnivàle but questioned the approach and execution of the story. Carnivàle's debut episode set a new viewership record for an HBO original series, but the show was unable to retain its ratings in its second season. Carnivàle was canceled after 24 episodes, cutting its intended six-season run short by four seasons. The show won five Emmys in 2004, was nominated for 10 further Emmy awards, and received numerous other nominations and industry awards between 2004 and 2006.
The second plotline revolves around a Father Coughlin-esque Methodist preacher, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), who lives with his sister Iris in California. He shares Ben's prophetic dreams and slowly discovers the extent of his own unearthly powers, which include bending human beings to his will and making their sins and greatest evils manifest in the form of terrifying visions. Certain that he is doing God's work, Brother Justin fully devotes himself to his religious duties, not realizing that his ultimate nemesis Ben Hawkins and the carnival are inexorably drawing closer.
Daniel Knauf conceived the initial script for the show between 1990 and 1992 when he was unsatisfied with his job as a Californian health insurance broker and hoped to become a screenwriter. He had always been interested in carnivals and noted that this subject had rarely been dramatized on film. The resulting story and its treatment of freaks was strongly informed by Knauf's experiences of growing up with a disabled father who was not commonly accepted as a normal human being.
Knauf named the intended feature film script Carnivàle, using an unusual spelling for a more outlandish look. Knauf had plotted the story's broad strokes as well as several plot details from early on and knew the story destination up until the final scene. However, the resulting 180-page long script was twice the length of an average feature film script, and Knauf still felt that it was too short to do his story justice. He therefore shelved the screenplay as a learning experience. In the meantime, all but one of Knauf's other scripts were rejected by Hollywood studios, often for being "too weird."
In the mid-1990s, Knauf met a few Writers Guild TV writers who encouraged him to revise Carnivàle as a TV series. Knauf turned the script's first act into a pilot episode, but, having no contacts in the television business, he was forced to shelve the project again and return to his regular job. A few years later, after realizing that his insurance career was not working out, he decided to give his screenwriting efforts a last chance by offering the Carnivàle pilot on his website. The script was subsequently forwarded to Howard Klein via Scott Winant, a mutual friend of the two men. After several meetings and conversations, Klein felt confident that Carnivàle would make a good episodic television series that could last for many years. Klein brought it to the attention of Chris Albrecht and Carolyn Strauss of HBO, who were immediately receptive. But the network deemed Knauf too inexperienced in the television business to give him full control over the budget, and appointed Ronald D. Moore as showrunner. (Knauf would replace Moore after one season when Moore left for the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.)
The pilot episode, which was filmed over a period of twenty-one days, served as the basis for additional tweaking of intended story lines. Long creative discussions took place among the writers and the network, leading to the postponement of the filming of the second episode for fourteen months. One major change was the addition of extra material for Brother Justin's side of the story. Brother Justin was originally conceived as a well-established preacher, and as a recurring character rather than a regular one. However, after perusing the preliminary version of the pilot, Knauf and the producers realized that there was no room for Justin to grow in a television series. Hence, it was decided to make Brother Justin an ordinary Methodist minister in a small town, setting him back in his career by about one or two years. Expanding Brother Justin's role opened new possibilities, and his sister Iris was created as a supporting character. Little was changed on Ben Hawkins' side except for the addition of the cootch (striptease) family; a Carnivàle consultant had elated the producers by calling attention to his research about families managing cootch shows in the 1930s.
Airing on HBO benefited Carnivàle in several ways. Because HBO does not rely on commercial breaks, Carnivàle had the artistic freedom to vary in episode length. Although the episodes averaged a runtime of 54 minutes, the episodes "Insomnia" and "Old Cherry Blossom Road" significantly departed with lengths of 46 minutes and 59 minutes, respectively. HBO budgeted approximately US$4 million for each episode, considerably more than what most television series receive. This increased Carnivàle's production value, allowing for a comparably large main cast, filming on location, and developing story, plot depth, and atmosphere.
To give a sense of the dry and dusty environment of the Dust Bowl, smoke and dirt were constantly blown through tubes onto the set. The actors' clothes were ragged and drenched in dirt, and Carnivàle had an estimated 5,000 people costumed in the show's first season alone. The creative team listened to 1930s music and radio and read old Hollywood magazines to get the period's sound, language, and slang right. The art department had an extensive research library of old catalogs, among them an original 1934 Sears Catalog, which were purchased at flea markets and antique stores. The East European background of some characters and Asian themes in Brother Justin's story were incorporated into the show. Except for the show's supernatural elements, a historical consultant deemed Carnivàle's historic accuracy to be excellent in regard to the characters' lives and clothes, their food and accommodations, their cars and all the material culture.
The production team of A52 had intended to "create a title sequence that grounded viewers in the mid-1930s, but that also allowed people to feel a larger presence of good and evil over all of time." A52 then pitched their idea to Carnivàle executives in early 2003, who felt that the company's proposal was the most creative for the series' concept. The actual production included scanned transparencies of famous pieces of artwork, each scanned transparency being up to 300 MB in size. The resulting images were photoshopped and digitally rendered. A last step involved stock footage clips being compiled and digitally incorporated into the sequence.
The opening title sequence itself begins with a deck of Tarot cards falling into the sand, while the camera moves in and enters one card into a separate world presenting layers of artwork and footage from iconic moments of the American Depression era; the camera then moves back out of a different card and repeats the procedure several times. The sequence ends with the camera shifting from the "Judgement" Tarot card to the "Moon" and the "Sun", identifying the Devil and God respectively, until the wind blows away all cards and the underlying sand to reveal the Carnivàle title artwork.
Jeff Beal's score is primarily acoustic sounding electronics, but mixes themes of bluegrass as well as atmospheric rhythmic sounds. Bigger groups of strings support smaller ensembles of guitars, pianos, violins, cellos, and trumpets. The music sometimes uses ethnic instruments such as banjos, harmonicas, ukuleles, and duduks.
Because HBO does not break individual episodes with commercials, Carnivàle's music is paced similar to a movie, with character-specific leitmotifs from as early as the first episode. Characters get musically identified by solo instruments chosen for the character's ethnic background or nature. Some characters whose connections would only be disclosed later in the series have intentionally similar themes.
Different music is consciously used to represent the two different worlds of the story. Brother Justin's world features music of constructed orchestral sound with religious music and instruments. On the other hand, the score of the carnival side is more deconstructed and mystical, especially when the carnival travels through the dustbowl and remote towns. For carnival scenes taking places in the cootch (striptease) show or in cities, however, contemporary pop music, blues, folk, and ethnic music is played. One of the most defining songs of Carnivàle is the 1920s song "Love Me or Leave Me" by Ruth Etting, which is used in several episodes to tie characters in the two worlds thematically.
The plot of Carnivàle takes place in the 1930s Dust Bowl and revolves around the slowly converging storylines of a traveling carnival and a Californian preacher. Out of the 17 actors receiving star billing in the first season, 15 were part of the carnival storyline. The second season amounted to 13 main cast members, supplemented by several actors in recurring roles. Although such large casts make shows more expensive to produce, the writers are benefitted with more flexibility in story decisions. The backgrounds of most characters were fully developed before the filming of Carnivàle began but were not part of the show's visible structure. The audience would therefore only learn more about the characters as a natural aspect in the story.
Season 1's first storyline is led by Nick Stahl portraying the protagonist Ben Hawkins, a young Okie farmer who joins a traveling carnival. Michael J. Anderson played Samson, the diminutive manager of the carnival. Tim DeKay portrayed Clayton "Jonesy" Jones, Samson's crippled co-manager. Patrick Bauchau acted as the carnival's blind mentalist Lodz, while Debra Christofferson played his lover, Lila the Bearded Lady. Diane Salinger portrayed the catatonic fortune teller Apollonia, and Clea DuVall acted as her tarot-card-reading daughter, Sofie. Adrienne Barbeau portrayed the snake charmer Ruthie, with Brian Turk as her son Gabriel, a strongman. John Fleck played Gecko the Lizard Man, and Karyne and Sarah Steben appeared as the conjoined twins Alexandria and Caladonia. The cootch show Dreifuss family was played by Toby Huss and Cynthia Ettinger as Felix "Stumpy" and Rita Sue, and Carla Gallo as their daughter Libby. Amanda Aday portrayed Dora Mae Dreifuss in a recurring role. John Savage played the mysterious Henry Scudder in several episodes, while Linda Hunt lent her voice to the mysterious Management. The second storyline is led by Clancy Brown portraying Carnivàle's antagonist, the Methodist minister Brother Justin Crowe. Amy Madigan played his sister Iris. Robert Knepper supported them as the successful radio host Tommy Dolan later in the first season, while Ralph Waite had a recurring role as Reverend Norman Balthus, Brother Justin's mentor. K Callan performed in a recurring role as Eleanor McGill, a parishioner who became devoted to Brother Justin after seeing his power firsthand.
Several cast changes took place in Season 2, some of them planned from the beginning. John Fleck, Karyne Steben and her sister Sarah had made their last appearance in the first season's finale, while Patrick Bauchau's and Diane Salinger's status was reduced to guest-starring. Ralph Waite joined the regular cast. Several new characters were introduced in recurring roles, most notably John Carroll Lynch as the escaped convict Varlyn Stroud and Bree Walker as Sabina the Scorpion Lady.
The script for the pilot episode was the basis for the casting procedure, with little indication where the show would go afterwards. This resulted in some preliminary casting disagreements between the creators and producers, especially for leading characters such as Ben, Brother Justin and Sofie. The character of Ben was always intended to be the leading man and hero of the series, yet he was also desired to display a youthful, innocent and anti-hero quality; Nick Stahl had the strongest consensus among the producers. The character of Sofie was originally written as more of an exotic gypsy girl, but Clea DuVall, a movie actor like Stahl, got the part after four auditions. Tim DeKay was cast as Jonesy because the producers felt he best portrayed a "very American" looking baseball player of that period. One of the only actors who never had any real competition was Michael J. Anderson as Samson, whom Daniel Knauf had wanted as early as the initial meeting.
Other than through the characters, the show's good-and-evil theme manifests in the series' contemporary religion, the Christian military order Knights Templar, tarot divination, and in historical events like the Dustbowl and humankind's first nuclear test. The writers had established a groundwork for story arcs, character biographies and genealogical character links before filming of the seasons began, but many of the intended clues remained unnoticed by viewers. While Ronald D. Moore was confident that Carnivàle was one of the most complicated shows on television, Daniel Knauf reassured critics that Carnivàle was intended to be a demanding show with a lot of subtext and admitted that "you may not understand everything that goes on but it does make a certain sense". Knauf provided hints about the show's mythological structure to online fandom both during and after the two-season run of Carnivàle, and left fans a production summary of Carnivàle's first season two years after cancellation.
Matt Roush of TV Guide called Carnivàle "the perfect show for those who thought Twin Peaks was too accessible". The Australian stated that Carnivàle "seems to have been conceived in essentially literary terms" which "can sometimes work on the page but is deadly on the large screen, let alone a small one. It's almost like a biblical injunction against pretension on television. A reviewer admitted his temptation to dismiss the first season of Carnivàle as "too artsy and esoteric" because his lack of involvement prevented him from understanding "what the heck was going on, [which] can be a problem for a dramatic television series. TV Zone however considered Carnivàle "a series like no other and [...] the fact that it is so open to interpretation surprisingly proves to be one of its greatest strengths. Carnivàle was lauded for showing "the hopelessness of the Great Depression to life" and for being among the first TV shows to show "unmitigated pain and disappointment", but reviewers were not confident that viewers would find the "slowly unfolding sadness" appealing over long or would have the patience or endurance to find out the meaning of the show.
The cancellation resulted in several story plot lines being unfinished, and outraged loyal viewers organized petitions and mailing drives to get the show renewed. This generated more than 50,000 emails to the network in a single weekend. Show creator Daniel Knauf was unconvinced of the success of such measures, but explained that proposed alternatives like selling Carnivàle to a competing network or spinning off the story were not possible because of HBO owning Carnivàle's plot and characters. At the same time, Knauf was hopeful that, given a strong enough fan base, HBO might reconsider the show's future and allow the continuation of the show in another medium; but because of the amount of unused story material he still had, Knauf did not favor finishing the Carnivàle story with a three-hour movie.
Knauf would not release a detailed run-down of intended future plots to fans, explaining that his stories are a collaboration of writers, directors and actors alike. He and the producers did, however, answer a few basic details about the immediate fate of major characters who were left in near-fatal situations in the final episode of Season 2. Knauf additionally provided in-depth information regarding the underlying fictional laws of nature that the writers had not been able to fully explore in the first two seasons. June 2007 however marked the first time that a comprehensive work of detailed character backgrounds was made public. Following a fundraising auction, Knauf offered fans a so-called "Pitch Document," a summary of Carnivàle's first season. This document was originally written in 2002 and 2003 to give the writers and the studio an idea about the series' intended plot, and answered many of the show's mysteries.
As of September 2008, no news has been announced about HBO reviving Carnivàle. A February 2006 mediavillage.com article stated that HBO was planning to develop a movie or miniseries that would wrap up loose plot lines for a telecast in 2007, with the aim to resurrect the franchise as an ongoing series in 2008. HBO never responded to these claims.
Carnivàle: The Complete Second Season was released as a widescreen six-disc Region 1 DVD box set in the USA on July 18, 2006, in Region 2 on August 7, 2006, and in Region 4 on October 4, 2006. Each of these releases was distributed by HBO Home Video and contained three audio commentaries, on-stage interviews of the cast and producers, a featurette about the mythology of the series, and four short "Creating the Scene" segments about the concept, inspiration and execution process. The packaging remained similar to each region's first season set.
Viewership dropped to 3.49 million viewers for Carnivàle's second episode but remained stable for the remainder of the season. The final episode of season one finished with 3.5 million viewers on November 30, 2003. Season one averaged 3.54 viewers and a household rating of 2.41.
The second season opened with 1.81 millions viewers on January 9, 2005, down by two thirds of its debut viewership. The ratings never recovered to their first-season highs, although the season two finale experienced an upswing with 2.40 million viewers on March 27, 2005. Season 2 averaged 1.7 million viewers, not enough to avert an imminent cancellation.
Later DVD reviews were able to judge the series on the basis of full seasons. While the acting, set design, costuming, art direction and cinematography continued to be praised, some reviewers disfavored the writing, especially of Season 1, as "lack[ing] story momentum" or as "sometimes gripping but mostly boring." Other reviewers pointed out that Carnivàle may "demand more from its audience than many are willing to invest. [...] Without paying close attention, it's tempting to assume that the show is unnecessarily cryptic and misleading." Carnivàle's story was surveyed as long and complex, "and if you don't start from the beginning, you'll be completely lost." IGN DVD's Matt Casamassina, however, praised the show in two reviews, writing that the "gorgeously surreal" first season "dazzles with unpredictable plot twists and scares", and that the "extraordinary" second season was "better fantasy – better entertainment, period – than any show that dares to call itself a competitor."
A significant portion of reviews drew parallels between Carnivàle and David Lynch's 1990s mystery TV series Twin Peaks, a show that Carnivàle actor Michael J. Anderson had previously appeared in. Knauf did not deny a stylistic link and also made comparisons to John Steinbeck's novel Grapes of Wrath. When Lost began to receive major critical attention, Carnivàle and its type of mythological storytelling were compared to Lost's story approach in several instances.
In the years after the show's cancellation, Alessandra Stanley of the Australian newspaper The Age remembers Carnivàle as a "smart, ambitious series that move[s] unusual characters around an unfamiliar setting imaginatively and even with grace, but that never quite quit the surly bonds of serial drama. The A.V. Club dwelled on Carnivàle's cliffhanger ending in a piece on unanswered TV questions and called the show "a fantastically rich series with a frustratingly dense mythology".
Like other cult television shows, Carnivàle gained a respectable following of dedicated viewers. Carnivàle fans referred to themselves as "Carnies" or "Rousties" (roustabouts), terms adopted from the show. Carnivàle's complexity and subliminal mythology spawned dedicated fansites, although most discussion took place on independent internet forums. Show creator Daniel Knauf actively participated in online fandom and offered story- and mythology-related clues. He also gave insight into reasons for Carnivàle's cancellation on a messageboard before speaking to the press. As of September 2007, he is still in contact with the show's fandom and posts semi-regularly on Carnivàle messageboards.
One year after Carnivàle's cancellation, a major Carnivàle convention called CarnyCon 2006 Live! was organized by fans. It took place in Woodland Hills, California on August 21–23, 2006. Many of the show's cast and crew attended the event and participated in discussion panels, which were recorded and made available on DVD afterwards.
Other awards include but are not limited to:
Countries or regions and the corresponding channels that broadcasted Carnivàle are: