Carnivàle ( /kɑrnɪˈvæl/) is an American television series set in the United States during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. 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 first episode set a new audience 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 two seasons of Carnivàle take place in the Depression-era Dust Bowl between 1934 and 1935, and consist of two main plotlines that slowly converge. The first involves a young man with strange healing powers named Ben Hawkins(Nick Stahl), who joins a traveling carnival when it passes near his home in Milfay, Oklahoma. Soon thereafter, Ben begins having surreal dreams and visions, which set him on the trail of a man named Henry Scudder, a drifter who crossed paths with the carnival many years before, and who apparently possessed unusual abilities similar to Ben's own.
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 as 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.
Although almost every Carnivàle episode has a distinguished story with a new carnival setting, all episodes are part of an overarching good-versus-evil story that only culminates and resolves very late in Season 2. The pilot episode begins with a prologue talking of "a creature of light and a creature of darkness" (also known as Avatars) being born "to each generation" preparing for a final battle.Carnivàle does not reveal its characters as Avatars beyond insinuation, and makes the nature of suggested Avatars a central question. Reviewers believed Ben to be a Creature of Light and Brother Justin a Creature of Darkness.
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 Dust Bowl 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."Carnivàlewas 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.