I really have a knack for falling in love with excellent TV shows years after they have been canceled. But perhaps it’s better this way. This way I don’t get all wrapped up in the fandom thing again, and I don’t have to be there when the network bring the hammer down and kill it. I’ve done that once already and ever since Farscape I have been watching TV shows from a safe distance. Watching a great show knowing it was never finished is usually less emotionally destructive than having it taken away from you due to some shitty network politics.
The sad part is that nearly all the good shows out there either get canceled way to soon, or jump the shark. That is the problem with the American TV industry – no one fucking knows when to end a show anymore. If the ratings are good, the networks want to stretch the story ad infinitum. When the ratings start falling, they usually drop the show without even giving it chance to wrap up the lose ends. It is a terrible, terrible setup.
The length of an average season for most US based shows is anywhere between 22 or 26 episodes. In most cases this is more than enough time to tell a compelling story. Just look at Heroes which opened up with an incredibly well written, and well executed first season that told a complete story from the beginning to the end. In fact, it wrapped up everything so well that there was no story left for it’s second season which ended up being so dull and uninteresting I lost my interest in the show. We should really start producing dramatic shows the way we make movies – sign a contract for X episodes, tell a complete story and then end it. This whole “pay for episodes as we go, until people start hating it” thing just does not work that well.
But I digress. I recently picked up one of those excellent, but prematurely canceled gems of TV magic called Carnivale. To tell you the truth, I picked it out based on strong reviews of pretty much everyone on the interwebs. It came highly recommended, and I went in with very high expectations only to be blown away. This does not happen very often kids. When I expect something to be awesome, I usually end up being very disappointed. Carnivale exceeded my expectations.
What sets this show apart from most of the other stuff you will see on TV is the unique setting. It follows around a traveling carnival troupe during the great depression and dust bowl years. You don’t see many shows set in that period – especially ones that deal with a wandering circus. The look and feel of the show is unique. The dry, dirty and dusty plains are juxtaposed against the colorful (but faded) carnival tents and banner. Raggedy clothes of common roustabouts and guests are contrasted with the rich and often extravagant costumes of the performers. Gusts of wind carrying dust and debris are constant companion of the travelers – often whipping around the banners and capes for dramatic effect.
Unsurprisingly (considering the theme) the characters are a colorful mix of circus freaks (bearded lady, a snake charmer, fortune teller, conjoined twins, a midget) and regular carny folk. Very strong and unique character concepts are complemented by excellent casting choices. For example, Michael J. Anderson role as Samson – the small sized carnival impresario became so iconic it actually ended up in World of Warcraft (I posted about this before):
The relationships and personal goals of these characters is the driving force that pushes the plot along. They are all a rag-tag group of outcasts with dark past and many skeletons in their closets. Some are fugitives hiding from the law finding refuge among the carny folk. Others have been carny’s for so long they already forgot how to do anything else. They become friends, fight, fall in love, betray each other. All under the watchful eye of the secretive “management” who never leaves his trailer. This mysterious and sinister character is a puppeteer that pulls the strings from behind the scenes according to some unknown agenda. That agenda has something to do with Ben Hawkings – a young man with strange healing powers, who is plagued terrifying nightmares. These dreams link his destiny to another character – a conflicted preacher gifted with a similar set of powers, and even darker past.
Carnivale is seeped in mysticism, and has a deep underlying fictional mythology with sinister prophecies and supernatural powers. These elements are always present, but portrayed very subtly. The show is mainly about people who sometimes find themselves at a crossroads where real and supernatural forces meet and pass through each other.
It’s an excellent, excellent show and it kills me that it only lasted for two seasons and got canceled without having a chance to wrap up the story. I highly recommend it.
Quick request – please do not post any Season 2 spoilers in the comments. I am about half way through it, and I don’t want to be spoiled.