Top 10 TV shows of the decade – # 2
Ah, Carnivàle. The crack in my heart, the tear on my pillow, the cut that never healed. Not because it was a bad show, but because it was the most beautiful show ever made, and was cruelly cut down in its prime by HBO, never to return, and never to fully whisper its secrets into the world’s ungrateful ear.
I know I’m really big on hyperbole – in fact, nobody in the world has ever, ever overused it like me – but in Carnivàle, television has never been more cinematic. It’s hard for movies and TV to find original settings, and there are scant few eras or locales left to plunder, but in Carnivàle’s depression-era dustbowl, they had a backdrop that’s never really been taken advantage of, and when there have been shows with American period settings, they’ve been lifeless family fare like The Waltons or Dr Quinn Medicine Woman. Infusing that with the magical realism of Carnivàle works in the same way that Bear-Lords and supernatural Jack the Rippers do in Victorian London fiction, as it’s a setting distant enough to be slightly mysterious and alien to us, but within the reach of a handful of dead generations. The self-contained world of the travelling carnival gave us a language all of its own – rousties, shaking dust, etc – a self-governing set of codes, and a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore and certainly hasn’t been portrayed onscreen. The attention to detail in bringing this grimy, antiquated setting to life was flawless, and so vivid you could almost feel the sand crunching against your teeth, like those horrible and ill-thought out sandwiches you take to the beach. From the rustic period music to the enormous sets, right down to the costume design that would sometimes clothe hundreds of background artists, every cent of the purported $4m an episode budget was right up there on the screen.
As well as the striking setting, Carnivàle’s mythology was something that, in entertainment circles is rarer than footage of Danny Dyer not acting like a total wanker; a completely new, 100% original concept. How often do you see that? While other genre productions, no matter their quality, jog along the same well-trodden path of vampires, werewolves, zombies, the Mafia, superheroes, space, cowboys or whatever, Carnivàle’s world was one of the richly drawn, fresh concepts of Avatars and Ushers, Vitae Divina and tattooed men, and beings of Light and Darkness. To strengthen that magical realism ambience, and the notion that the age of magic was supplanted by the age of reason when man harnessed the atomic bomb, the mythology weaved itself into real world history like the Knight’s Templar and the A-bomb test at Trinity. It’s the kind of thing Dan Brown would wish he could do in his wildest dreams, if he wasn’t such an unimaginative arse. In spirit, there’s somewhat of a Preacher vibe, with the section where Ben returns home particularly reminiscent of Jesse Custer’s homecoming, but I don’t know if that was intentional, or if a huge Preacher fan like myself is vicariously living out dreams of an HBO adaptation.
Every aspect of Carnivàle was a strength, but the greatest of these was one of the single most solid casts ever put together, containing many performances that, had they been in other, lesser shows, would have been stand-out show-stealers, but in Carnivàle were just part of package. Clancy Brown’s Brother Justin, whose true nature doesn’t become apparent to him or us until quite a ways in, is a performance of extraordinary power, and you could argue a very real case for Brother Justin Crowe as the all time greatest bad guy there ever was. Justin evolves hugely from the caring yet silently tortured pastor of the opening episode, trying to find God’s purpose for him through altruistic deeds, but beset by tragedy that brings out brief glimpses of the beast within. As he denies, then finally accepts what really is, and as his true, true nature becomes apparent, Justin becomes monstrously frightening, an overpowering presence, both physically and charismatically. Those moments where he’s putting on his public face, dealing with parishioners and bureaucrats with increasing disregard, he’s at once creepily charming and terrifying, a pinging piano-wire of demonic tension barely keeping himself in check, and threatening to spill out and fuck them all black-eyed into madness, like that poor maid.
In Iris, he has the perfect foil, the puritanical church-marm who, like Justin, is freed from the burden of concealing who she really is, and develops into the sinister, incestuous, stop-at-nothing killer in a church hat that may actually be worse than her brother. On the Carnie side of things, Michael J Anderson’s beautifully nuanced Samson is a performance that you’d never have expected from someone whose biggest role was the backwards talking guy in Twin Peaks. That’s not a slight on him, just on the maddening fact that the guy isn’t getting a ton more work. Samson is the ultimate tough-but-mostly-fair surrogate father of this big, fucked up family, labouring under the burden of having to bow to management’s orders and doing what he can to keep everyone happy, but still with that carnie streak where business is business, and you’ll never know if you’re getting worked. Samson’s “he was my friend” line may be the most heartbreaking of the whole series.
Nick Stahl held up the other end of the story perfectly, bringing out likeability in a character who could easily have veered off into whiny, while you can say the same for Clea DeVall, and it’s one of many tragedies resulting from the cancellation that we’ll never get to see Sofie become her father’s girl, giving DeVall the opportunity to really go to town. Also notable are Patrick Bauchau’s Lodz, who was such a magnetic presence, he almost pick-pocketed the early episodes away from the rest of the cast, Adrienne Barbeau’s Ruthie, centred, strong, but not a finger-snapping “I am a strong, independent woman” cliché, and sexy as all hell, and dependable but broken Jonesey. Robert Knepper followed up with his sleazy Tommy Dolan by routinely being the best thing about otherwise poor hit TV shows, and if there was a comedic centre to the show, it was be Toby “I’m the Wiz!” Huss’s frazzled Stumpy. Speaking of the Cootch family, Mama Cootch was essentially a 1950s teenager’s sketch of what a sexy woman looks like come to life, and eye candy enough to lock you into a metaphorical sugar-coma until 2050. Baby got back and front. So I’m just listing characters again, because they were all so great, but I have to mention Ralph Waite, who spent season two acting under the severe limitations of his character’s stroke, with basically nothing but the eyes through which to convey a myriad of complex emotions and a silent determination to put a stop to the monster he raised. It’s a stunning performance.
I have this bee in my bonnet (and it is a lovely bonnet) about how we British can’t do TV drama, not for the past couple of decades anyway. Everything’s a variation of a cop show, a medical drama, or a vehicle for whichever soap star has just been poached from the other side. When we do try and do genre stuff, it’s virtually without exception unbelievably cheap looking sub X-Files bollocks. Can you imagine anything like Carnivàle coming out of the UK? Forget about budget, but creatively? I’m sure it’s not the writers, it has to be a problem at the commissioning level. Every great dramatic show of the last fifteen years has come out of the US – mainly HBO – and what was our great red, white and blue hope? Red fucking Riding, a pretentious barrel-load of overused clichés and Victoria Wood style Northern caricatures that the critics and press wanked on about as being revolutionary while blithely ignoring the slapping sound of the emperor’s dick whacking them around the face. Try and imagine if a British channel had made Carnivàle. Go on, picture it – it’d be lit like Emmerdale with Ross Kemp as Brother Justin, Ben played by a twat from Hollyoaks, and James FUCKING Nesbitt as the voice of management.
But I digress. Carnivàle’s pace was something that turned a lot of (lazy, stupid) people off, with the first season the definition of a measured slow-burner, and the two main characters not sharing a scene – barring a short dream sequence – until the tail end of season two. When the Carnivàle finally does show up in Justin’s world, even Johnny Storm’s getting chills. The first episode of the second season answered more questions than the previous twelve hours combined, and the pace suddenly jumped into a thrilling breakneck tempo that, if it were a book, you’d be excitedly turning pages so fast it’d blow your wig off. After the reveals of the mythology and of the characters’ true natures, rewatching the first season feels as though you’re seeing it for the first time, and when you’re clued up, that pace suddenly doesn’t seem so slow anymore.
Despite how amazing it was in every way, and the none-more-blueballing ending, the network decided that the inexplicably dwindling audience just wasn’t big enough to justify the heavy price tag, so we’ll have to make do with the memories (or, you know, the DVDs). Brother Justin’s speech about bankers, politicians and whores, Ben’s encounter with the roadside hunchback, and Mama Cootch pouring water over her spectacular knockers – just like Marilyn, it’s clear that the reason Carnivàle died is because it was just too beautiful to live.
What a day to lose the maid.