"On the heels of the skirmish man foolishly called "the war to end all wars", the Dark One sought to elude his destiny: live as a mortal. So he fled across the ocean to an empire called America, but by his mere presence, a cancer corrupted the spirit of the land. People were rendered mute by fools who spoke many words but said nothing, for whom oppression and cowardice were virtues, and freedom an obscenity. And into this dark heartland the prophet stalked his enemy till, diminished by his wounds, he turned to the next in the ancient line of Light. And so it was that the fate of mankind came to rest on the trembling shoulders of the most reluctant of saviors ..."
In 2003, HBO brought to life one of the most interesting period dramas ever on television. Set in 1930's America, against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the agricultural ruin of the Dust Bowl, the first season of Carnivāle put in motion an epic battle between the forces of good and evil. Slowly and deliberately, the players were positioned, great mysteries were foreshadowed, and an elaborate mythology began to take form, culminating in an electric season finale that begged for answers and resolution. Now, almost a year after it first aired, the second season of this rich television program arrives on DVD, taking us even deeper into the mythology and providing satisfying clarity to most of this engrossing tale.
N.B. Obviously, this review assumes the reader is familiar with the events that took place in Season One (review). If you are new to the series, I suggest you check it out first.
The first season of Carnivāle ended in spectacular fashion with one of the best episodes of the entire television year. "The Day That Was the Day" set up some crucial story points and closed with one doozey of a cliffhanger: Ben's (Nick Stahl) murder of Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) before Management (Linda Hunt), Apollonia's (Diane Salinger) suicidal plan to kill her own daughter Sophie (Clea Duvall), Jonesy's (Tim DeKay) daring rescue attempt into the blazing trailer, and the beginning of Brother Justin's (Clancy Brown) acceptance and ascension to power. It would be virtually impossible to write this review without giving away, at a minimum, which characters survive the fire, so if you haven't figured it out on your own and really don't wish to know at all, you should probably just skip to the conclusion, as the surviving characters figure prominently in these episodes. For everyone else ...
Carnivāle's second season opens with a flurry of information, much of which could be inferred from the events in previous episodes, but is now spelled out pretty clearly for the audience. What is the deal with Scudder (John Savage) and Belyakov (the Russian, Vladislav Kozlov), who is the tattooed man, how does Management figure into everything, and where are Ben and Justin ultimately headed? At the time the premiere episode aired, I felt it was almost too much information at once, and watching it again, I tend to agree with myself. What made the first season so great was its slow thoughtful development, but viewers complained, and this episode feels like a direct response to those complaints. That's not to say the premiere is bad on any level, quite the contrary, but it does stand out, and its rapid-fire revelations mark a shift in the manner of storytelling for the series. While later episodes do settle down a bit more into what viewers may be used to, this season is less about establishing mystery and more about the journey to the finish line.
Another area in which the show has changed gears is that there is a decreased focus on the different sideshow attractions and creative carny schemes. A few fun nuggets slip in from time to time, but with the exception of the "Cootch Show" Dreifuss family -- Stumpy (Toby Huss), Rita Sue (Cynthia Ettinger), and Libby (Carla Gallo) -- there isn't a great deal of material dedicated to the inner workings of the carnival itself or those who work there. It's unfortunate that this charming aspect of the first season didn't find its way into this season as much, but in truth, there is so much happening in every episode to further the primary plot that there just isn't room for anything else. On the whole, that is a very good thing, and the scenes with the Dreifuss crew are so great that they would dwarf other subplots anyway.
With the shift from the mystery to the journey, many characters start to really come into their own. After killing Lodz, and having a nice expositive chat with Management, Ben begins to truly accept and explore his power, honing his gift and realizing that he is more than just a healer. Justin, on the other hand, completely embraces the evil inside him. The conflicted man of God is no more, as the manipulative creature of darkness has taken form, and we find that his powers are also much deeper than we previously realized. Both Stahl and Brown are incredible in their performances, and it's fun to see Ben shed some of his meek exterior, coming into his own and facing his destiny, while Brother Justin alternates between coldly menacing quiet and forceful scenery-chewing authority.
This second season marks a period of growth for Sophie as well. The events of the fire have truly damaged her, and she has lost her place in the world. Losing her mother is difficult enough, but knowing that she grabbed her arm and intentionally tried to kill her is too much to bear. Sophie had quite a bit of screen time in the first season, but her journey doesn't really begin until this one, and where it takes her is far more interesting than what came before. What really happened to her mother, how is it she can hear her voice inside her head, and what was with the Templar who approached her in New Mexico?
For all the interesting characters and story points, though, it cannot be forgotten that Carnivāle is a visual masterpiece, a staggering accomplishment of cinematography, art direction, costuming, lighting, and set design. The intricacy and detail in every scene is absolutely remarkable, both in Justin's serene California home and in the desolate lands where the carnival takes root, and it is easy to become completely immersed in the world the show creates. It really is impossible to overstate that visually this series is borderline perfection. In my gushing praise over the look of the series, however, I must also make note of the wonderful musical choices, particularly the original work of Jeff Beal. His beautiful cues in certain key sequences add yet another layer to the show's greatness.
When I reviewed the first season, I questioned whether the cryptic nature of the show would fall into the trap of so many others, always raising questions without any genuine payoff of answers. Fortunately, the faith of those who continued to watch is well rewarded, as the answers delivered throughout this season show that there is a grand story being told that is worthy of our patience. Much has been made about HBO's cancellation and the story threads left unfinished, but it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of this chapter is completed by the series finale, and frustration over the loss of future story should not for a moment turn you away from this compelling second season. Still, there is a maddening cliffhanger, and taken in context with Knauf's post-series remarks, it is unbelievably tragic that the rest of the story will not be told. Considering the cost of the show and its dismal ratings, it's impossible to fault HBO -- in fact, they should be praised for giving us a second season when the numbers really didn't warrant it -- but it's still quite painful to know that quality like this is being created by talented and inspired people, and yet it is so rarely embraced by a lazy and disinterested public.
The complete second season of Carnivāle is presented in the same style of casing as the first season, reminiscent of a finely bound novel. The outer slipcover is made of a thick cardboard and displays a kickass rendering of Ben and Justin. It houses a textured fold-out unit where each panel contains a single disc, in addition to images and information about the particular episodes. Awkwardly, my copy of the second season is a few centimeters shorter than the first season. Visually, the two pair together perfectly, but in terms of dimensions on the shelf, they don't match.
The video is in 16x9 anamorphic widescreen, and like most HBO releases, the quality is fantastic. If you look really hard, you can find some small imperfections, but they are trivial. Everything looks absolutely gorgeous. 4 audio tracks are included, English, French, and Spanish 2.0, and contrary to misinformation floating around the Internet, English 5.1. The balance on the 5.1 track is precisely where it should be, and the show sounds as good as it looks. We expect nothing less from HBO, and they deliver once more.
For the hearing impaired, there are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
There are three audio commentaries spread across this set, but none of them is anything overly special. Each has series creator Daniel Knauf and executive producer Howard Klein with the episode's director and a series star. For "The Road to Damascus", it's Clea Duvall and director Tucker Gates, on "Lincoln Highway, UT", there's Nick Stahl and director Rodrigo Garcia, and on the series finale, it's Clancy Brown and director Scott Winant. Probably the best in the group is "Lincoln Highway, UT" with Stahl and Garcia, but I did find it nice that Clancy Brown asked Daniel Knauf a specific question about a certain scene that I questioned myself when I watched it. These aren't bad commentaries, and really big fans of the show will enjoy them in some capacity, but they're not overflowing with tidbits about the show's creation or its mythology. It's mostly just friendly chats about the show while casually watching the episodes unfold.
On the final disc are a few intersting extras, certainly better than the lone featurette from the first season. Footage from "The Museum of Television & Radio's William S. Paley Television Festival" (29:51) is included with on-stage interviews from much of the cast and crew. These MT&R pieces show up from time to time and are typically shot with one or two distant fixed cameras showing a wide grouping of the actors on stage. For this featurette, however, footage is mixed and matched in an odd multi-camera approach that sometimes works well when two speakers from opposite sides of the stage are talking with each other, but mostly it's an awkward way to present this material.
"Magic & Myth: The Meaning of Carnivāle" (26:31) is probably the best extra on this set, and is a series of interviews with key members of the cast and crew discussing the mythology of the show and what their grand purpose was. While most of the information presented here is apparent to the attentive viewer, it is interesting to hear it in their own words and understand what they were trying to achieve with the show. Oddly, a fan/mythologist for the show appears in this piece and talks quite a bit about the series. For a show that only had 24 episodes over 2 seasons, it seems strange to have an outside "mythologist" brought in, since it's not like you need some die hard expert to cull together a bunch of scattered writings from different sources across various media. Still, he presents himself fairly well, and this makes for good viewing for anyone who enjoyed the show.
Finally, there are 4 short "Creating the Scene" segments (3-5 minutes each), providing a glimpse into the filming and special effects processes. Since these segments deal with specific plot points in this season, I won't talk about them any further.
Carnivāle is a vividly constructed and wildly engrossing tale about ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary battle between good and evil. The second season takes the mystery established in the first and brings it into focus as the pieces are positioned for a showdown between the avataric leads. It is every bit as stylistic and entertaining as the first season with more clarity of purpose for the characters and a faster pace in the storytelling. While there is so much story left to tell in this epic piece, and it is profoundly disappointing that audiences can't seem to embrace such greatness, this set does answer most of the major questions raised by the show and, along with the first season, makes for a largely complete two-part story. With better special features than the first release to accompany 12 incredible episodes of compelling television, it is a no-brainer to Highly Recommend.