Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S E R I E S   R E V I E W
t h e   e p i c   e x o d u s   t h a t   i s   c a r n i v ā l e


Š 2003 (HBO)
Directed by Steve Barron
Series Creator: Daniel Knauf
Directors: Jack Bender, Rodrigo Garcia, Tim Hunter, Alison MacLean, Peter Medak, John Patterson, Jeremy Podeswa, and Scott Winant
Series Writers: Henry Bromell, Toni Graphia, Daniel Knauf, Ronald D. Moore, Dawn Prestwich, Nicole Yorkin, William Schmidt
1-hour program airs Sundays 9pm EST (season finale, November 2003)

OH, THIS is fun. Carnivāle? Yes. Fun, illuminating and beautiful, in the way that magical realism can be fun, illuminating and beautiful even as it is equally heartbreaking, dark and ugly.

The independent arts and community portal, Schwing, recently characterized the Dust Bowl days of 1934, marked by the exodus of penniless Okies to opportunity-laden California and the desperate hand-to-mouth existence of Americans searching for God during those low days in our country's history, "the last great age of magic."

I'm not sure I agree with that position (every decade bears its own brand of magic), but if one were to take historical cues regarding magic from the excellent programming at HBO, one would have to believe that it's rendition of The Great Depression in the new series, Carnivāle, more than lives up to that characterization.

As the title suggests, the series focuses on the roadside tales of a traveling carnival cutting a path through the barren Dust Bowl region. You have all your regular carnies: the blind mentalist, the snake charmer, the bearded lady, the tarot card reader, the midget. But you also have the rabble from the road, which brings on board in the debut episode a cursed young man with the amazing ability to heal others. Cursed, because in order for him to restore life to one, he must take away life from another.

Enter the doppelgänger aspect of the program -- a parallel story following the rise to power of a California-based preacherman who has been touched with visions that have nothing to do with anything as wholesome as healing. Viewers get to peek into the lurid lives of both carnies and revivalists, only to learn how human, vulnerable and fallible they all are, and how similar.

As you can well imagine, these destinies are doomed to clash. But while Carnivāle is a classic good versus evil story, there was nothing predictable about the twelve episodes that aired last fall. Steeped in an atmosphere of fervid evangelism, moral depravity and persistent pestilence, the miraculous events that enframed each episode became mile markers for a humanity that couldn't help but take wrong turns at every fork in the road. All this, of course, played out on a world stage already flayed by the ruins of war and economic disaster.

Why in the world is this fun? A dark sense of humor pervades the storyline. For instance, the circus's comatose psychic tortures her card-reading daughter with the usual judgments befitting any dysfunctional mother-daughter bond, with the arguments naturally played out only in their minds. Our unwilling and oft naīve healer is also sent on a wild-goose chase by locals while looking to contact a rival carnie interested in "local talent." Actions by the evangelist, who is institutionalized for a time with mental patients, take on equally black comedy. These are subjects that require humor in order to be accessible.

And how could Carnivāle not be beautiful -- the cinematography is stunning, cast in sepia tones and taking on wide shots of the landscape that are worthy of art galleries. Costumes and makeup and sets are so despicably real that they achieve that heightened sense of magic that epitomizes the genre. And the directorial ensemble -- a cadre of brilliance borrowed from many of HBO's other successful programs -- has made even the sandstorm episode illuminating, thanks to brilliant, spare dialog, compelling imagery in the form of dreams and visions, and well-developed characters who we can sympathize with while despising just a little at the same time.

If you've missed it thus far, don't be afraid to join the circus next season. It won't matter if you're not completely familiar with the characters. You'll be mesmerized enough to be compelled to watch every episode.

For more information about this movie, please visit the HBO Carnivāle website.

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Rev'd 2004/01/16