HBO’s Carnivale

June! 2021 already feels eight miles long, if ya catch my driftwood. Geez. Alrighty.

     I have been rewatching an HBO series from the early 2000’s called Carnivale, about a showdown between good and evil played by the chosen ones of God and the Devil. At least, that’s what I garnered from it the first time around and pretty much this time, too. It’s all set against the Great Depression, pre-WWII, post WWI, the ‘war to end all wars’. It ran two seasons. 24 episodes. Very well done, quality stuff here.

It featured Clancy Brown and Amy Madigan as a squirrelly brother and sister team, where he’s Brother Justin and she’s the alleged submissive elderly spinster takes care of the house and does a lot of church work drone. Of course, we get intimations early on that Brother Justin ain’t the godly sort, that he might be working for the Other Team. We also find out the sister ain’t so, uh, yeah. No spoilers if you haven’t found this odd little gem of a series yet.

Tommy Dolan, Iris Crowe and her brother, Justin Crowe. Robert Knepper, Amy Madigan and Clancy Brown.

Of course, the carnival itself. Colorful characters! Freaks but no geeks. That’s where a man or woman eats a living creature, usually a chicken, as an audience watches. It’s just as gross, heartless and terrible as it sounds and yes, actually took place. We have the family of whores and chooch dancers! Boy howdy, does mama Rita Sue, Cynthia Ettinger, have the goods. She’s actually fleshy, earthy and exudes real actual sexuality—a sort of Marilyn Monroe type twenty years before MM was a thing. Maybe she’s a Mae West-ian type? Okay! She’s also one of my faves from this show. Stumpy, her hubbie and father of their two dancing daughters, is also a fave. He’s walking a knife edge between wanting to keep on feeding himself and his family and walking away from what he clearly thinks is emasculating him in the eyes of everyone. And it’s fascinating to watch all the dynamics at play in this family, which faces a tragedy pretty early on.

There’s also the snake dancer, played by the fantastic Adrienne Barbeau. There’s a bearded lady, who’s in cahoots and in bed with the blind seer, Dr. Lodtz. Who’s a treacherous bastard in the manner of Littlefinger from Game of Bones, er, Thrones. But oddly, lacking the real charm that Littlefinger had and the subtleness that so underlined one of the archvillains of King’s Landing.

Suffice it to say, there’s a great cast here with some truly fun parts. And hoooo boy howdy, is a lot of that just enjoyable to watch. Carnival folk struggling to make ends meet during the Dust Bowl years. That would have been a great series. Just real people fighting and scrapping to fill the kitty each night they got the whole shebang set up in some field or outside a town.


Now, I am not against all the magic-mystical-religious overtones in Carnivale. Because they’re graphic, sexual, ghastly, bloody, beautiful, strange and at times head-scratching.

So now let me go over the lead character, Ben Hawkins as played by Nick Stahl and one of the featured females, Sophie, as played by Clea Duvall. As they seem to be one and the same character.

Thoroughly unlikable shits that get chance after chance after chance for some reason. I mean, after a while, shouldn’t people listen to Ben Hawkins telling them to leave him alone and, well, leave him alone? Or figure out that Sophie isn’t likely to feel anything for you, Jonesy but a contempt? Move on, Jones! Jesus Christ, move on. It’s also a creepy relationship, as Jonesy is a grown man in his thirties who played with Sophie when she was a kid yet…mmm. Now he’s hitting on her and wanting to get in her panties. She’s it for him, as he confessed to our resident lady with a lot of gentlemen callers. Why?? Sophie, as written, has no redeemable qualities and is pretty much a lesbian. She showed more want and desire for Libby, daughter of Mae West-ian earth mama, than she had ever displayed for lovesick Jones.

Now, Ben is allegedly the hero here. The reluctant savior type, as he’s called by Samson, the little person who’s second in command. Samson takes orders from Management, who seems invisible and might be God? Mm. Management tells Samson that Ben is important, they have to take him with them. This is after we see Ben not save his own mother with his magic healing powers. He’s a gruff, ungrateful, thoroughly repellent character as written and played. Is this deliberate? Are we supposed to warm up to ole Ben? Cause. Yikes. I had this same problem first time I watched this. I grew impatient and then numb to whatever Ben was going through or had to do or was forced to do or whatever. Fuck off, Ben. I kept wondering why these savvy carnie folk didn’t shuck him like a bad oyster already. So what if he’s the savior-chosen whatever. So? Apparently this same fight has been waged since ever. It’s not like it’s unique. Drop Ben like a bad habit, Carnivale denizens!

To me, if Ben and Sophie had been culled early, I’d not have missed them. I was far more interested in the life of a circus performer set against such a harsh backdrop. Sure, you can throw in some magic and whatever, but oh my God, make the main character a bit more rounded than LEAVE ME ALONE I’M SUFFERING HERE. Fuck me running. I started to root for Brother Justin, played almost note-perfect by Brown, to win at whatever game this was. Blow the whole world up, you crazy bastard! Totally Team Justin here. I also wanted Sophie to meet her end so Jonesy could move on, steal Rita Sue from Stumpy and…yeah.

All in all, it’s a pretty good watch if you’re up for it. You might like Sophie and Ben more than I do and hey, that’s fine. I just found them both so utterly repellent on every level. Be warned, it’s HBO so there’s nudity, cussing, rape, violence, drug use, a scene where rabbits are beat to death and some other assorted stuff and things that might not be your cup of dust. Get it? Dust Bowl? Cup of dust??

This has been my brief, hasty take on Carnivale.

Some of the Carnivale crew from the HBO two-season series. Sophie and Ben are dead center.

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