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HBO presents
Carnivāle: The Complete First Season (2003)

"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."
- Samson (Michael J. Anderson)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: December 06, 2004

Stars: Michael J. Anderson, Nick Stahl, Adrienne Barbeau, Patrick Bauchau, Clancy Brown, Amy Madigan, Clea Duvall
Other Stars: Debra Christofferson, Clayton Jones, Diane Salinger, Toby Huss, Cynthia Ettinger, Carla Gallo, Amanda Aday, Brian Turk, Karyne Steben, Sarah Steben, Ralph Waite, John Fleck, Tim DeKay
Director: Rodrigo Garcia, Jeremy Podeswa, Peter Medak, Tim Hunter, Alison MacLean, Scott Winant, Jack Bender, John Patterson

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, nudity, violence)
Run Time: 12h:00m:00s
Release Date: December 07, 2004
UPC: 026359885723
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+B+A B

DVD Review

Leave it to HBO to come up with yet another piece of original programming that raises the bar above and beyond the norm, proving once again that the new face of series television belongs to a pay channel, and not the big three networks. Those days, it seems, are long gone.

The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, Oz, Six Feet Under (even the perplexing phenomenom of Sex and the City) sort of reinvented the playing field, and in the process revealed the kind of television reality that audiences would not only clamor for on a weekly basis, but that they would pay extra for. The DVD releases do a brisk business as well, drawing in viewers who maybe weren't subscribers. With the release of the 12-episode Carnivāle: The Complete First Season—in stores just a month before the start of Season Two—those who haven't yet taken the HBO leap will get yet another chance to see what all the commotion is about.

Set in the post-Depression desolation of the sandstorm-ridden 1930s Dust Bowl, Carnivāle is essentially a broadly intertwined and epic story of good versus evil, alternating between the inner workings of a mysterious traveling carnival and that of an even more mysterious smalltown preacher. There is rich bed of curious supporting characters (especially within the carnival), and over time we meet them all, but the crux of the narrative is focused on young Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), a quiet fugitive rescued from the razing of his desolate hardscrabble farm by the traveling carnival, and Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a towering bible-thumping preacher convinced he has become an instrument of the Lord.

It is quite clear from the opening narration of episode one, delivered with an ominous bit of foreshadowing portended by Michael J. Anderson (last seen talking backwards on Twin Peaks), that the inhabitants of the carnival and Crowe are on a collision course of some kind, but that's pretty much where the predictability factor ends for this show, with credit going to creator Daniel Knauf for keeping the clues cryptic and the storytelling on the good side of strange. To reveal too much about what follows would sort of ruin the fun of discovery, and where's the sport in that? This is really one of those "the less you know the better" programs, because it only serves to make the intricate twists and creepy machinations that Knauf lays out have all the more impact. Unlike the lighter fare that usually passes for television drama, this is hardly the kind of show you can watch with anything less than full-on attention.

As for the production, Carnivāle is something to see. The visual scope of the series recreates all of the wind-blown unpleasantries of the Dust Bowl-era (or at least as I imagine it must have been), so well that the sandy grittiness seems so palpable I swear I could almost taste it. Nothing kills the dramatic buy in of a period piece more than the inability to accept the actors recreating a look. That is not a problem here. The unrepenting ugly beauty of Carnivāle is harsh, and is as much a component of the show's overall success and appeal as the storytelling. It makes Oklahoma look like a lunar landscape.

The weird thing is that even if you were to strip away the whole apocalyptic light versus dark angle I think Carnivāle would still be something special. It's an odd and dream-like setting, full of secrets and a bit frightening, with an undeniably skewed family dynamic. There is no one outright likeable individual amongst the cast of characters of this shifty traveling show—they all exist in the same nefarious subculture that seems alien and dangerous—and even newcomer Ben Hawkins has his own inner demons and issues to contend with. It is this tapestry of potentially dark characters that makes much of Carnivāle hypnotic.

The surreal post-Twin Peaks appeal of the diminutive Anderson as the roguish leader of the traveling troupe (though he does answer to a higher power) was the initial visual hook for me, but that came before the slow introduction of the gaggle of supporting players: Sofie (Clea Duvall), the tarot reader who is able to "hear" the psychic predictions from her catatonic mother, Appolonia (Diane Salinger); Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), the blind mentalist with genuine powers of second sight; Lila (Debra Christofferson), the requisite bearded lady; and Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), the aging but alluring snake charmer. Mix in a pair of ethereal Siamese twins, an egotistical lizard man, and a lumbering strong man with the brain of a child—to say nothing of Ben Hawkins and his "gift"—and there is enough there to keep me occupied without the nightmarish arc about good versus evil. Just keep giving me more of Bauchau's all-knowing Lodz, easily one of the standouts on the show and one of the greatest creepy/cool characters of recent memory, and I'll be a happy camper. The balance of Clancy Brown as the dangerously driven preacher, with his fire-and-brimstone banter, is just that much extra dark coolness, if you ask me.

To paraphrase a line from Jerry Maguire, "You had me at '1930s traveling carnival'."

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: All 12 episodes are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The series runs incredibly heavy with all manner of reds, browns, and blacks—and color-wise this is one very dark program. Luckily, the transfer is a rather strong one, and while image detail is not always razor sharp, the color reproduction and solid black levels make for an even and impressive presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, French, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is really a wonderful thing, utilizing the rear channels often and to great effect, which always makes me happy. The surround cues are often nothing more than ambient sounds (murmurs, wind, dogs barking, etc.), but their presence stretches out the sound field into one of the more encompassing mixes I've heard for a television series. Dialogue is balanced well across the front, and even the mumblings of the occasional character was clearly discernible. A slightly less rich 2.0 surround track is also provided.

Additionally there are 2.0 surround tracks available in French or Spanish.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 72 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Featurette(s)
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by Rodrigo Garcia, Daniel Knauf, Howard Klein, Jeremy Podeswa
Packaging: Tri-Fold Amaray with slipcase
Picture Disc
6 Discs
6-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: HBO has issued Carnivāle in an eerie-looking fold-out case that is made to resemble a old book, and the presentation sets the tone right away. It is a bit on the bulky side, especially for just twelve episodes, but it is spread across six discs.

There are three commentary tracks, featuring creator Daniel Knauf, producer Howard Klein and directors Rodrigo Garcia and Jeremy Podeswa. Disc 1 has the best of the three commentaries, provided for the initial two episodes (Milfay and After the Ball Is Over), and on Disc 6 there is a less memorable one for episode 10 (Hot and Bothered). The interplay between Knauf and Garcia offers the richest content, full of casting tidbits and some insight on the writing variations that took place with regard to episode one. Why not commentary on the season ender, guys?

Disc 6 also houses The Making of Carnivāle (12m:48s), one of those typical behind-the-scenes HBO promo pieces. It is of moderate interest, especially when it concerns the creation of the look of the series, which Knauf refers to as operating under a "biblical template."

Each 56-minute episode is cut into six chapters, with optional subtitles in English, French or Spanish

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

This is far too good to be classified simply as series television, it is more like long-form cinema. It is dark, complex, ambitious, detailed and the kind of experience that demands a viewer to stay on his/her toes.

Like most of the HBO original series, this one carries a higher than average price tag for a 12 episode set. It is, however, most definitely worth the price.

Highly recommended.


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