Carnivale Pilot – Season 1, Episode 1 – “Milfay” – Of Good, Evil and Outsiders

Carnivale      If you’ve been reading the blog for a while now you’ve probably found that I do love shows or movies that incorporate mythology into them, and do it well. Be it Heaven, Hell and the Apocalypse in shows like “Supernatural” and “Sleepy Holow” (and this show), or shows that play off Greek and Christian Mythologies like “Battlestar Galactica.” For me these myths have the potential to teach us about ourselves, as any good story can. It was discussing this with my Grandfather when he suggested this show, and he got me hooked.

I’ll be reviewing episodes of “Carnival” sporadically, but I do plan on going through the entire season since the show itself isn’t that long. The show was created by Daniel Knauf who served as Producer along with Ronald Moore (one of my favorite directors and producers) and Howard Klein. Daniel Knauf wrote the first episode while Rodrigo Garcia directed.

The premise begins with the mythology of the show as one of the Carnies, a Dwarf named Samson who has power says,

“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 would clash by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then, nobility, and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was, until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason.”

From here the story unfolds following an ex-con named Ben Hawkins who is haunted by dreams of being hunted by a tattooed man. He awakes and we are in the time of the Great Depression as he is watching his mother die as she is scared of him. From here the story unfolds as two people from the Carnival stand up for him leaving him with the dilemma of recognizing his power and to join or not join the Carnival, fully leaving his past behind to start again.

Here is the assessment of the pilot:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The Cinematography is fantastic! The scenes that catch the desperation are beautiful as the dust shows how desolate Ben and other characters feel. We also see some spectacular visions that are done to give us glimpses into the minds of the characters.

The Writing – From Samson (Michael J. Anderson of “Twin Peaks” fame) being the co-manager and guy who isn’t fully trustworthy but has good intentions, to Ben’s mysterious past and the mysterious present of Pastor Justin Crowe. The elements of supernatural pervade the themes and the dreams while never fully integrating themselves except for a scene where Pastor Crowe makes a woman throw up money after she stole and Ben resurrects a kitten and makes a little girl walk again.

The Music – The music is amazing! It keeps the mysterious feel and strange of what makes the Carnival and the Carnival while keeping religious themes in it too the way “Battlestar Galactica” did. Wendy Molvoin and Lisa Coleman were perfect composers for the theme and music.

The Characters – All the characters who have scene get great exploration that shows them to be more complex than they first appear to be. This is an ensemble show even though Ben and Justin are the primary drivers of the story.

Samson – I really like Michael J. Anderson, his being co-manager with the mysterious Management makes for an interesting situation as he is the one who is practical but also can be cruel and kind. He offers himself as a mentor figure to Ben but is rejected. I’m curious to see what his relationship to Management is like, as well as the rest of the carnival.

Brother Justin Crowe – He is set up as the powerful and possible antagonist as it is left open if he made the lady who stole throw up quarters since she stole one…and he later has a vision outside an erotic dance bar of a red cross over it in neon after it snows and rains blood upon him…and we see Ben have a vision of him with black eyes jumping out. So he’s probably the well meaning antagonist when the story gets deeper in. Clancy Brown is great for this role.

Jonesy – Works the Ferris Wheel, has a kind heart towards children but is contrasted with his looking down on women. After Sofia is nearly raped in town he tells her she shouldn’t have gone out. She smacks him thankfully but internalizes what he says later. We do see him help a crippled girl ride the Ferris Wheel for free though and gives her and the boy she’s with an extra ticket.

Sofia – Sofia is the one who reminds Ben of his past by reading his guards, which reveal his past and the kitten he brought back to life that his mother killed and caused him to suppress his powers. She stands up for herself against Jonesey’s sexism and fights the rapists but is contrasted by her saying Jonesey was right to Ben showing the growth she still has to go through in regards to respecting herself. She lives with her mother who is in a coma and talks to her through her mind. They are an act at the Carnival. Clea Duvall was good for this role.

Lila – Is the bearded lady who has compassion for Ben. She is the most experienced of the Carnies as far as how comfortable she is in her face. I can’t wait to learn more about her character. Debra Christofferson plays the character.

Ben Hawkins – The primary character haunted by dreams and the protagonist of the series. We don’t know fully what put him in prison or why he is so guarded about his past but we know he can perform miracles as he resurrected a cat and made a girl walk again at the end of the pilot. I’m curious about this character even though the Carnies are at time more compelling. Nick Stahl was chosen for the role and it is a good fit at this point.

The Themes – Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, Wealthy and Poor, Privileged and Victimized, Corrupt and Good. These themes are captured really well and I expect they’ll be throughout given Samson’s opening speech.

Okay: Slow Start – The pilot is slow at times which is good for building tension and setting tone but I would have liked more drama between characters. It’s not bad but can’t put it as a pro either.

So far I really like this series and I was glad my Grandfather got me into it. I like how the Supernatural element is subtle unlike “Supernatural” or “Sleepy Hollow,” which are both shows I really like, but are both strongest when we are being teased by the mythology and discover it over time. This is what makes this show really great, besides the amazing producers, the fact it’s on HBO (giving it more flexibility in what it can do) and working the mythology into the ensemble cast and covering the fascinating era of the Great Depression. The choosing of a Carnival as the main area of drama with Crowe’s town on the other side of the story. It gives a  nice contrast of the poor and outcast versus the wealthy and privileged.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. A great start to the series.

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