TV, Interrupted: When Carnivále Was Canceled, Man Forever Traded Away Wonder For Reason

(Welcome to TV, Interrupted, a series where the /Film team remembers, eulogizes, and makes a case for the revival of TV shows we loved that were canceled far too soon.)

The TV series "Carnivàle" begins with the carnival overseer Samson (Michael J. Anderson) shrouded in darkness. Turning his eyes to the camera, he explains:

"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 clashed 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."

Besides being an all-timer of an opening, Samson's monologue is the key to unlocking the opaque, inscrutable, and often bewildering mythology of Daniel Knauf's short-lived HBO show. A mix of gritty historical realism and mystical horror, "Carnivàle" stars Nick Stahl as Ben Hawkins, a farmer from Oklahoma who joins a traveling carnival amidst both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in 1934. Afflicted by enigmatic nightmares and on the run from the law, Ben is more than just another troubled young man trying to make ends meet. He's actually capable of raising the dead and healing others physically with his touch, though only by drawing life energy from an outside source.

Elsewhere, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a Methodist minister, slowly expands his following in the small California town where he lives with his sister, Iris (Amy Madigan). Haunted by dreams and visions similar to Ben's, Justin also possesses secret abilities that allow him to impose his will onto those around him, save for Iris. But are Ben and Justin really the beings of light and darkness alluded to in Samson's speech? Is there more to both men and those around them than meets the eye? Am I just asking rhetorical questions to which I already know the answers?

Welcome to the wondrous mind-trip that is "Carnivàle."

Why Carnivále was great

If "Deadwood" (which launched on HBO less than a year after "Carnivàle" debuted in 2003) and "Twin Peaks" could have a baby, it might look and feel a bit like "Carnivàle." 

For as lusciously seedy as the 1930s carnival setting from Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley" is, "Carnivàle" soaks its own squalid vision of a Depression-era traveling show in dust and grime, making it all the more tangible. The carnival workers' faded, tattered costumes and shabby equipment only further heighten that sense of verisimilitude, to the degree that you can almost taste the despair and hopelessness in the air. Like "Deadwood," the series' impeccably filthy aesthetic allows it to fully transport you to a desolate time and place in U.S. history far removed from the present (yet, in many ways, uncomfortably similar).

As for "Twin Peaks," Michael J. Anderson (who played the rockin' Man From Another Place in Mark Frost and David Lynch's surreal classic) isn't the only thing the series has in common with "Carnivàle." Both shows take their time unraveling the mysteries at the heart of their stories, focusing as much on the day-to-day lives of their outcast characters as the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil quietly unfolding around them. In doing so, they also expose the cruelty and misogyny of humanity, resulting in some of the most emotionally-violent or just plain brutal moments ever put to the small screen. ("Carnivàle" season 1, episode 5, "Babylon," in particular, ends on a haunting gut-puncher of a note.)

It's the execution that makes "Carnivàle" such a riveting slow-burn. Besides the stellar direction by the likes of Rodrigo García ("Mother and Child," "Last Days in the Desert") and Jeremy Podeswa ("Boardwalk Empire," "Game of Thrones"), the show features prized character actors like Clea DuVall ("Girl, Interrupted," "Better Call Saul"), Toby Huss ("Halt and Catch Fire," "Dickinson"), John Carroll Lynch ("Zodiac," "American Horror Story"), and, of course, Anderson in crucial roles, along with the always-excellent Clancy Brown and Amy Madigan as the most unsettling brother-sister duo this side of Jaime and Cersei Lannister (and all which that implies).

And let's not forget Linda Hunt ("The Year of Living Dangerously," "Kindergarten Cop")! The Oscar-winning stage and screen legend provides the ominous voice of Management, the carnival head honcho who schemes from the shadows like a chess player, both guiding and manipulating Ben on his journey to realizing his destiny.

Why Carnivále was canceled

"Carnivàle" draws from a myriad of sources (from Tarot cards to Catholicism) to craft its own singular mythology, which itself is dense enough to require an entire Wikipedia page to break down and explain. It then marries these theological motifs with an allegorical story about different institutions (religion and the arts) wrestling for America's soul, similar to the one P.T. Anderson told a few years after the show ended in his film "There Will Be Blood." That's all to say, Daniel Knauf created a series that fans would've had a field day critiquing, interpreting, and theorizing about online, had it hit the small screen in a post-"LOST" world.

Sadly, "Carnivàle" was ahead of the curve, premiering a year before "LOST" changed the game. It probably didn't help that "Deadwood" arrived on its heels, filling the same niche of richly-detailed prestige HBO period drama as "Carnivàle," but without the disturbing fantasy elements that even viewers who watch every episode might have a little trouble explaining at times. Mind you, it's not that the show is that confusing or hard to follow. But it does require you to pay close attention — which, coupled with its slow pace, turned off casual audiences at a time when that type of small screen storytelling was a little less common than it is today.

All the same, "Carnivàle" started off strong. Its first episode was the most-watched premiere for an HBO series at the time (at least until "Deadwood" broke its record). Viewers eager to learn where the series was headed kept tuning in for the rest of its first season, with ratings staying mostly consistent from its second episode on. By season 2, however, people were losing patience, with the show's ratings dropping to less than half of those for season 1. And when push came to shove, "Carnivàle" simply cost too much for HBO to justify continuing it any further.

Despite this, those who were watching "Carnivàle" made it crystal-clear to HBO just how unhappy they were about the show ending. As HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht told Zap2it in 2005:

"Never have we gotten besieged the way we have been besieged by 'Carnivale' fans for deciding not to go on with the third season of that show. I mean literally 50,000 e-mails over a weekend and I don't mean the first weekend. It's so over-the-top, not just in terms of the number, but in terms of things that they say and threaten."

Unfinished business

Daniel Knauf had envisioned "Carnivàle" as a six-season series, with every two seasons forming a "book" in a trilogy of stories. As such, when the show ended prematurely after season 2, it had reached a natural pausing point (climaxing with the long-awaited showdown between Ben and Justin). At the same time, the season 2 finale features some big teases of what was to come in season 3, on top of the various plot threads that were left dangling in the episode.

Sitting down with the AV Club in 2013, Knauf spilled the beans about what he had planned for the rest of the series, which included a five-year time jump after the season 2 finale. Much of the focus of the show's next "book" would have then shifted onto Sofie (Clea DuVall) and the question of whether she, as the Omega, is ultimately a force for good or evil in the war between Ben and Justin. This, in turn, would have fed into a World War II storyline in which Ben tries in vain to prevent the atomic bomb from being realized, culminating with the prophesied "false son" exploding over Trinity (as in the Trinity site in New Mexico where the first nuclear device was set off in 1945).

Perhaps even more fascinating was how Knauf planned to approach humanity's creation of nuclear weaponry had he gotten the chance to realize his original six-season vision. Much like "Twin Peaks: The Return" would depict this event as a turning point in the eternal battle between the forces for good and evil in its universe, "Carnivàle" would have portrayed the rise of weapons of mass destruction as a horrifying yet necessary step for humankind to take to continue growing as a species. As Knauf put it:

"It's the full scope of the idea, the big idea. The big idea that we were children until we detonated these two bombs out in the desert. We always say, 'Oh, isn't it a horrible thing? Oh, it's the nuclear age. Now we wrestle with destroying ourselves as a species,' and it's looked upon as a completely negative thing. But in a way, I look at it as when we were able to put away childish things. That's when we got our first apartment. That's, people started to go, 'Hey, wait a second.' I think right up until that moment, the idea that we could destroy ourselves was absurd. Now we take it for granted. We start to look at it, 'Well s***, we got the holes in the ozone layer.' We become aware that we're capable of existential destruction, and I think that's part of growing up as a species."

Will Carnivále ever return?

Where other TV shows that were canceled too soon elected to wrap up their stories with two-hour TV movies (namely, "Deadwood" and "Sense8"), Daniel Knauf told the AV Club he passed on the idea of doing something similar with "Carnivále." As he saw it, there was simply far too much plot left to get through to do it all justice in that format, not least of all with the budget it needed. Knauf added that he later attempted to continue the show as a series of Marvel comic books, claiming it was "all set up" to go at one point. In the end, though, he said Marvel "just couldn't turn the corner with HBO" when it came to sorting out the rights issues.

Even without any sort of continuation, Knauf noted the "Carnivále" fan base (which he qualified at the time in terms of the "followers on the Yahoo board" for the show) had only grown as more and more people watched the entire series on DVD over the ten years after its cancelation. Clancy Brown was similarly asked about his experience working on the series as one of the first questions in a 2014 AMA on Reddit. He replied:

Yeah! It was a great show to do. You know, you don't see many shows about the Depression on TV, and I thought just the beginning of it, when the beginning narration talks about the death of magic and the birth of technology, or something like that, I can't remember the exact phrase that is used, I thought that pretty much summarizes that period, and that shift in American history and human experience, where we go from believing in magic to believing in science and drawing a stark line between the two. It was fun, it was about the battle of good & evil. We had the best art direction I've ever seen on the show, the costumes were just beautiful, it was really meticulous and fun to watch. The photography was gorgeous, I always looked forward to watching it. I don't usually watch what I do, but I always looked forward to those episodes because they were so fun to look at.

For all the things "Carnivále" had going for it, timing just wasn't on its side. It was an expensive show for 2003 (around $3.5 million per episode, according to Knauf) but a far cry from the extravagant budgets HBO allots for its biggest series in 2022. Had it come around in the modern era, "Carnivále" would have also been able to generate buzz and build its audience through social media and streaming, as similarly ambitious, audacious genre TV shows have managed to do in recent years. Then again, maybe it was always fated be a wondrously strange, esoteric piece of storytelling — too weird to live a long life, and too rare to die quietly.