“Before the beginning, after the great war between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called man. And to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then, nobility, and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason.” – Samson, ‘Milfay’ Carnivale
It’s been over a decade since Carnivale began and 8 years since it went off the air, but you can still find devoted followers scattered across the Internet. It’s one of those shows that sticks with you long after you watch it, sucking you into its world from the first frame of the pilot all the way to the credits in the final episode and leaving you wanting more. The show takes place in a time period in US history that is seldom touched upon – the Dust Bowl era – and frames it from the unique perspective of a traveling carnival show. Carnivale takes a basic good vs evil plot, puts it in a unique setting, and adds magic and mystery into the mix. The end result is utter perfection. It’s visually gorgeous, has an incredibly interesting mythology, and fantastically unique characters. Even though the show has been off the air for many years, new people are drawn into it all the time. It’s just that good.
This show takes the classic good vs evil plot and weaves it into an incredibly fleshed out mythology unlike any other. The story follows two individuals in completely separate locations for most of the show’s run. We have Ben Hawkins, a young man who’s mother died at the height of the Dust Bowl. As he’s burying his mom the bank attempts to repossess his house, but a traveling carnival happens by the confrontation and helps Hawkins lay his mother to rest in peace. Their association would have ended there, but when they realize that Hawkins is an escapee from a chain gang and has literally lost everything he had that afternoon they take him under their wing. The carnival is used to taking in misfits and outcasts, so they accept him in without much of an argument.
It’s not as simple as it appears on the surface, though. The mysterious ‘Management’ states ominously that “he was expected.” The carnival is no ordinary circus and soon Hawkins finds himself surrounded by real magic and mysteries that could very well help solve the questions relating to his own life. Hawkins has always been different from other people. From a young age he had the power to heal others, though his mother’s rejection of his gifts caused him to feel a massive amount of shame over it. She viewed it as a touch of the Devil. The carnival is a place of magic, though, and seems to have mysterious ties to his own past. Though he’d much rather reject that entire part of him, the possibility of finding answers to his life long questions proves to be too much to ignore.
Meanwhile out in California we follow the other primary character, the preacher Brother Justin. Like Ben Hawkins, Justin has his own special gifts that manifest themselves in ways that he attributes to signs from God. His church attracts a large number of migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl and he begins to attract a ‘flock’ of his own. Though the two characters are physically separate, they are tied together by visions that they repeatedly have of one another. Neither of them really understand what the visions mean, but it doesn’t take long before they are both driven to decipher them and unravel the mysteries of their own existence.
These two characters are only the beginning. They’re key players in a massive mythology that spans back to the beginning of time. Don’t worry. This isn’t a spoiler. This is all highlighted in the opening monologue. How these characters fit into the mythology and what they are destined to achieve is something you’ll need to watch the show for.
Everything about this show is beautiful. The costumes, the sets, the cinematography, everything. Even the opening sequence is highly praised for it’s artistic merit. Carnivale won five Emmy’s for the astounding visuals involved in the production of the show. There was an insane amount of research involved with bringing 1934 to life. As I mentioned, it’s not an era that you get to see depicted too often, which makes the accuracy of the costumes and sets even more remarkable. Even if you find nothing else about this show appealing to you, the design is worth giving it a shot. It is by far one of the most beautiful shows ever created.
At its core, the show is about basic good vs evil, but the extended cast of characters is way more complex. Almost everyone is morally ambiguous to some degree. Nobody is straight forward and everyone has their own set of motivations, interests, and emotions. What makes these characters so interesting goes beyond even the often jarring surface differences. After awhile you almost forget that the Bearded Lady of Brussels even has a beard. She becomes Lila, a fully fleshed out character whose story has become interesting in its own right. The ‘cooch show’ family – which consists of a mother, father, and two daughters who put on a traveling burlesque show – becomes way more complex than their initially bizarre family dynamic. You begin to look beyond the surface of the characters and get pulled into who they are as people. For a cast as large as this and with a mythology as intricate as the one written for this show, having so many fully developed and unique characters is quite a feat.
The show also has many notable female characters who are not only positive depictions for our time, but incredibly progressive for the 1930’s. The women themselves are also diverse in age, body type, and femininity. With the high level of female characters present, the show easily passes the Bechdel test numerous times. Two of the women are also revealed to be bisexual and, while the depiction of bisexuality isn’t exactly perfect, it’s great to have diversity among the cast as far as sexuality goes. Even now the topic of sexuality is something that people are weary of touching, but this show was made a decade ago and takes place in the 30’s when homosexuality or bisexuality was even more rarely spoken about.
While on the surface a carnival that showcases people like a bearded lady, strong man, and conjoined twins can appear to be exploitation, we’re given the view from the inside that reveals a supportive, accepting environment. They’re all respectful of one another’s differences and work together to keep their operation running. Besides some sibling rivalry among the cooch show dancers, there’s really no body shaming or ability shaming among the carnival crew. When one of the women begins to work along side the men, they’re a little weary at first, but let her contribute in the way she wants to contribute. They’re like a large extended family. They accommodate for each other and everyone has a place regardless of how different they might be. Like all families, though, tensions do run high at times and fighting does happen. These things add to the normalcy in an otherwise unusual setting rather than detracts from it. Even though on the surface level they don’t fit in with the rest of society, their feuds with one another are depicted in an alarmingly normal way. They fight about love, bicker with their siblings, and suffer through the stages of grief just like anyone else would.
This show is incomplete. That in and of itself will probably scare a lot of people off, but I encourage you to try it anyway. The story was written in three parts consisting of two seasons each. The show never made it past the second season, so the first story arc does wrap up, but the last two never get off the ground. The final few moments set up the beginning of the second arc, which never went into production. If you ignore the final couple of minutes and assume that a couple of the character’s whose fates are left open ended made it out okay, the story can be pretty complete and you can go on with life without the heartache of an incomplete story. Please don’t let the fact that it got cancelled scare you away. It’s worth it. I promise.
There are also several content and trigger warnings that you should know about. As several of the main characters are burlesque dancers, there’s a fair amount of nudity on the show, especially in the first season. This might make it uncomfortable to watch with family. A couple of the characters also face sexual assault and one character is revealed to have been raped before the start of the show. It is depicted via flashback and plays a part in the ongoing plot. As the show takes place in the 1930’s, there’s also occasionally archaic and possibly offensive language in regards to gender. There’s also several character deaths throughout the show. Proceed with caution.
Stephanie “Angel” Wilson is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and has essays published in Fandom Frontlines.
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