Sunday, July 16, 2006

Carnivale: 'Milfay' (1x01)

I heard about Carnivale when it first aired and the multitude of David Lynch comparisons, plus the fact that it's an HBO series, made me want to check it out. HBO's "It's Not TV, It's HBO" advertising campaign could come off as arrogant if it wasn't backed up by such a high quality bunch of shows. I'll check out pretty much anything HBO does because they've got such a strong track record.

The show itself starts off with a wonderfully atmospheric pilot that has me intrigued to see more, but not totally hooked on the show. I've written before about the fact that in the past few years, TV drama has changed from an episodic medium to one where many creators conceive of the show as one larger story, broken down into chunks. A show like The X-Files, or even Buffy, started out with a rather unremarkable episode compared to what would come later. There was not the sense that this was the start of a huge story.

However, things have changed and Carnivale starts like the first piece of a much larger story. This structure informs the entire episode. The opening is what I'm guessing will turn out to be a thematic summation of the series as a whole, dealing with themes of good and evil, and the passage from an age of wonder to an age of reason. The conflict between wonder and reason is something that's at the center of a lot of Alan Moore's work, most notably From Hell and Promethea. It's a theme with a lot of potency, particularly when the act of creating a story is equated with magic.

Our main crew in this show are clearly from the age of wonder. They all seem to have some kind of magical power and that's just accepted. They're telekinetics, psychics, and dream readers, all governed by a mysterious "management." Outside of the Carnivale, the age of reason is in full effect. People are crushed by the reality of their losses and succumbing to total depression. When we first see Ben he seems utterly defeated by the world, which we now know is a result of the fact that his mother wouldn't allow him to use his gifts to save her. She sees his magic as something demonic and wrong, and has restricted his powers.

So, I'm assuming one of the big arcs of the series will be Ben's conflict between his restricted upbringing and the free environment of the Carnivale. They travel the countryside, temporarily distracting people from their plight and making them feel good, as powerful a magic trick as any. After spending some time with the Carnivale, Ben feels empowered enough to use his magic to make the little girl walk again.

This is a show that looks fantastic, it feels like being dropped in another world, one so alien that even the World War I footage in the dream sequences feels out of place, belonging to our world not theirs. The concepts and visuals are great, but the pilot doesn't really give you a feel for what an average episode will be like. As I mentioned before, this feels more like the first chunk of a huge story than a typical pilot for an episodic TV series. I'm guessing the basic structure will be the Carnivale travelling to new towns, but it's unclear which of the characters, other than Ben and the Preacher, are going to be major figures and even those two aren't particularly well defined yet.

But, in the long term, I'd much rather see a pilot like this, that teases you with the mood and a bit of plot, than one that gives you a neat three act structure. If you're coming back for twelve episodes, there's no need to provide any sort of closure here and if I want to find out what the average episode will be like, it just means watching the next one. Even if the opening speech is a bit pretentious, I admire the fact that they have a specific agenda of themes that are going to be explored.

I'll definitely be watching more, there's a ton of potential here and it will be interesting see how it plays out.

Related Posts
Promethea: 1-16 (2/22/2005)
Carnivale (1x02-1x05) (7/20/2006)

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