Wednesday, January 12, 2011

TV Thursday: Carnivale

Cultural snobs are usually known for decrying the degree to which arts and entertainment have deteriorated in the modern era, with varying degrees of fairness; as usual, one has to look back at past triumphs with the understanding that most of the crap has been filtered out over the years, leaving us with the best of film, novels, or what have you, whereas the present remains mired in Sturgeon’s Law. But seemingly everyone agrees that television is one medium that’s shown an undeniable improvement in the last 20 years. With a very small handful of exceptions, much of what was broadcast before 1990 was pretty much disposable crap, or at best, ephemerally entertaining. Even the “great” sitcoms of the era are now marred by laugh tracks, the “great” dramas by staginess and the limitations of network television, the “great” genre shows by repetitive plots and a lack of narrative development. At least, that’s my take on it—some people can get past this stuff more easily. But I love old movies, and I’m usually able to get past their staginess or cheapness without much difficulty; I feel like much of what limits old TV has to do with the need to talk down to the audience, or at the very least, the persistent fear that following an ongoing narrative will require more brainpower than the average couch potato was believed to possess.

(I guess I should qualify this by pointing out that the British were way ahead of us North Americans in the TV department; when I think back on TV shows from before 1990 that I genuinely like, the top slots are immediately occupied by Monty Python and The Prisoner, and of course there are dozens of other great British televisual achievements like I, Claudius, dating from the era in which Charlie’s Angels was ruling the airwaves. As for other country’s TV, I obviously don’t know enough to weigh in. And as for Canadian TV from before I was born, well, I don’t know much about that either. This above rant applies pretty specifically to American television.)

But then came 1990, the year in which Twin Peaks hit, and suddenly it became clear that TV could handle the weird, the obtuse, and the narratively complex—and that something this wild could go beyond barely surviving and become genuine water cooler television. Round about the same time, the Simpsons began to hit its stride, and Seinfeld made its quiet debut, two shows that would finally, mercifully raise the bar for TV comedy. The floodgates opened, and the next few years saw a staggering improvement in the quality of television that continues to this day. Most cultural critics would point to the last decade as perhaps the best ten years for quality programming in television history, and I tend to agree.

Which makes it weird that I’ve watched so little TV in the last ten years. A lot of it has to do with the rise of DVD collections and streaming TV online (and being pretty hard up for cash, thereby putting cable as a low priority), but still, I’ve completely skipped a lot of the most buzzed-about shows of the last few years and before. I have to admit, I usually have a bad track record with getting in on the ground floor of a show; either they end up disappointing or get abruptly cancelled, so I like to wait until something’s established itself a little before catching up.

So…this is that. A series of posts on TV shows. There’ll be two categories here: shows that I only discovered in the last year or so despite passionate fanbases, and shows that I enjoyed in the past but want to revisit to see how my opinions have changed. Despite my rant at the beginning, I *will* be going back to shows that aired before 1990, but as I’m unlikely to want to delve into old episodes of Mary Tyler Moore while I still have so many great modern shows awaiting perusal, the focus is more likely to be on shows from the past few years. (Consider my Doctor Who post to be kind of a warm up. Though I’m likely to post about that show when it returns, too.)

So, to start: the rather warped, lavish Twin Peaks-inspired HBO series CARNIVALE.

Set in the midst of the Great Depression, the story concerns an Okalahoma rube and runaway from a chain gang, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), falling in with the titular traveling carnival. Ben’s farmboy fa├žade conceals a secret; he has the Christ-like ability to heal with his hands, but at the cost of taking some other creature’s life, be it an acre of wheat, a pond full of fish, or another human being, depending on the seriousness of the healing being performed. (Yes, it’s essentially the same ability possessed by Ned, the lead character of Pushing Daisies, though needless to say this is a very different show.)

Ben’s understandably rattled by the implications that his power carries with it, and the responsibility of choosing who lives and who dies, leading him to conceal his powers whenever possible. But the Carnivale may be a more suitable venue for him than he might have expected, as several of the other carny folk display hints of supernatural knowledge as well. Then there’s the mysterious owner of the Carnivale, referred to only as Management, who never comes out of his caravan, but who may be manipulating Ben’s destiny from afar. Everything seems to be heading for a collision with a parallel subplot involving a priest in California, Justin Crowe (geek favourite Clancy Brown), who’s beginning to manifest supernatural powers of his own.

While Carnivale remains a favourite of mine, there’s no denying that the show has some serious flaws, and chief among them is the dramatic structure. Aside from the glacial pacing of the first season (things pick up substantially in S2), there’s the problem that the whole season is built around characters going through the traditional Joseph Campbellian “refusal of the call to adventure”, particularly Ben; after setting up a character with superpowers and an epic destiny, it seems pretty askew to spend 12 episodes having the character refusing to have anything to do with them. Even into the second season, Ben remains one of the most passive, dim, whiny protagonists this side of Anakin Skywalker; it says something about Nick Stahl’s acting ability that the character is likeable at all.

Until shit finally gets real partway into the second season, much of the narrative heavy lifting is left to be carried by the various mysteries and intrigues of life at the Carnivale; even here, though, there’s a problem, as the show’s writers spend an inordinate level of time on the Dreyfuss family, considering of barker Stumpy (Toby Huss) and his wife (Cynthia Ettinger) and daughter (Carla Gallo), “coochy girls” (which basically translates to 30s-era strippers and prostitutes). Stumpy’s role essentially requires him to pimp them out, which provides an initial kick but quickly devolves into annoying melodrama that only tangentally relates to the main storyline. Again, the actors do their jobs and keep us from getting completely frustrated with these characters, but this is still a subplot shoehorned in for the sake of adding sex appeal to a story that’s supposed to be about slightly more important concerns.

Still, for all that, it’s impossible not to be taken in by everything else going on. Using a traveling carnival as a setting for a genre show is, really, a bit of a masterstroke; it’s an interesting, delightfully weird setting in and of itself, and its wanderings from place to place bring it into contact with all kinds of potentally interesting stories. The show also reveals a clear love and understanding of horror and fantasy on the part of the creators; Ray Bradbury is an undeniable influence (Stumpy actually gives a speech at one point that steals directly from Something Wicked This Way Comes, another story about a supernatural traveling carnival), and in its contrast between down-home Americana and the weird, dark corners of the world, it captures the tone of Stephen King’s best writing in a way I don’t think anyone else has ever done on film. And of course there’s the Twin Peaks influence; casting Michael Anderson as Sampson, the carnival’s general manager, is one obvious nod, but the show provides a deeper homage to that earlier show in Management, a mostly-unseen force who hides behind a red curtain and has a voice like something out of your worst nightmares. No matter how thoroughly and pedantically Management’s backstory is eventually explained in the second season, the essential creepiness remains.

Which is good, because it’s remarkable to me, looking back on it, how little flat-out horror there is in this horror series. Atmosphere isn’t nothing, of course, but as I mentioned above, the show set up a terrific premise that would allow for a great number of standalone horror story episodes, and yet in the first season it rarely took advantage of this. When it did, the results were pretty great; the one truly “standalone” story in S1, the two part “Babylon”/“Pick a Number”, ends on a satisfyingly terrifying note, and there are some excellently skin-crawling bits in S2 (the best involving a porcelain baby’s mask…you’ll know it when you see it, believe me). But strangely, the show’s writers were pretty reticent to go all-out with fully-formed horror plots. I’d make less of this if there weren’t several episodes in S1 where almost nothing seems to be happening, with “Insomnia” being a particular offender. A good dose of flat-out horror—not mystery and Lynchian atmosphere, actual horror--would have improved S1 immensely.

Speaking Joseph Campbell, the show also suffers more than somewhat from its reliance on now-familiar genre tropes. Here, the problem doesn’t really manifest itself until a second viewing; on the first go round, you’re so consumed with the mysteries and atmosphere of the show, and there are more than a few red herrings that suggest a far more interesting moral conflict. After watching the first season, I was utterly convinced that the twist the show was heading towards was the revelation was that Ben was the one “born into evil” and Brother Justin was the scion of good. After all, Ben’s initially benign-seeming power actually comes with a cost, and it’s one that could very easily lead one into temptation; meanwhile, Justin’s initially creepy-seeming power (he can bring to life people’s sins in tangible form, forcing them to confront them) is, when you think about it, a pretty useful power for a priest who’s angling to put people on a righteous path! This is confused even further by Ben’s less-than-heroic nature and Brother Justin’s attempts to do good in S1, and more crucially, the fact that the two characters’ parents—gradually revealed over the course of the first season—more or less line up with this interpretation; Justin’s the son of an avatar of light, and Ben’s dad is slowly revealed to be one bad dude.

And as it turns out, I was far from the only one coming to this conclusion. As I quickly discovered in poking around the internet, this was pretty much the default interpretation of the show going into S2. Which must have made it all the more surprising when the truth turns out to be far simpler than it appears; Ben really IS the good guy, Justin really is a demon in human form, and both slot quickly into their allotted two-dimensional roles in S2. At the same time, even as the show gains narrative momentum, much of the mystery, ambiguity and potential moral conflict of the first season falls quickly by the wayside, reverting to a fairly bog-standard hero’s journey, good-vs-evil, fate-of-the-world-at-stake conflict. Similar to Lost, the show concealed its ultimate predictability behind technical proficiency and alluring, original trappings.

Fans of the show predictably bemoan its abrupt cancellation at the end of S2, when the creators supposedly had 4 more years of storylines waiting to unfold. But honestly, for all the dangling plot threads left after the final episode, the show does come to an indisputable climax, resolving much of the tension that had been building, and feels “finished” the way that, say, the first Star Wars movie does—there’s the promise of more, but at least the main story is complete.

Of course, if the show had handled things a little more intelligently, either moving the story along at a faster pace or favoring horror over melodramatics, maybe it wouldn’t have had to worry about getting renewed anyway. All in all, Carnivale is a weird, uneasy collision of ideas, many of them very well-done, but failing to cohere properly. It’s maybe better to see this show less as a narrative journey and more as a destination in and of itself—a wonderfully bizarre sideshow set up off the main trail, a tactile and atmospheric world that packs up its tent under the cover of night and is gone before you know it.

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