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Sunday, January 09, 2005

Something wicked this way comes... again: Carnivàle second season begins tonight on HBO

When it comes to television, you're reading the words of a man who is only slightly more liberal than the Amish. Meaning: I have to know with conviction that whatever it is on the screen is not going to waste even a few hours of my life to watch. It better be enlightening enough that I'm not only willing, but desiring to invest my time toward viewing it. Heavy emphasis on "enlightening", too.

Suffice it to say, the number of things that have ever come on TV that I've so looked forward to watching as to have it marked on my mental calendar have been so few as to be countable on one hand. And the number of regular television series surpassing that bar have been far, FAR more scarce (yeah huge fan of The Simpsons but even they don't rate on my scale). There have only been two during my 30 years of living: Twin Peaks (yes, I will admit to being so offbeat a geek as to have LOVED that show!) and Babylon 5. Heck, Babylon 5 was worth an entire year or two of college education on top of the classes I was already taking. It was soooo good that it wasn't just something I took time out to watch every week, but some friends and I made it a Saturday night ritual to watch the new episodes at my apartment while eating Papa John's pizza. Man those were good days...

There hasn't been anything of that high a quality that's even remotely piqued my interest since then (the last episode of B5 aired in late 1998). Until this past year. It now looks like there's going to be three and possibly five television series that I'll have to start watching, if they're as good as people I trust have told me. The first is the new Battlestar Galactica: haven't even watched the miniseries that aired last year but Chad, my best friend since forever, had nothing but good ravings about how great it was. The folks from Great Britain who've seen episodes of the new series already have reported on Ain't It Cool News that, as one Brit put it, it is a "hexcellent" show. After reading enough about it online, I'm committing myself to finding a DVD of the miniseries and catching up before the main show cranks up.

There's also something called Lost, which I haven't seen a single episode of either but Spousal Overunit's Terrific Mother claims it's "a really good show!" When Spousal Overunit's Terrific Mother says something is worth checking out, I listen. Looks like I was fooled early on and wrote this off as something predictable – about a group of plane crash survivors – but it's not, apparently. Someone told me that there's literally hundreds of theories about what is going on with this show's plot and most of 'em have to do with weird mystical stuff the likes of which prolly haven't been seen since Caine bench-pressed the entire Earth with his mind on Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. I caught maybe three minutes of Lost when we were in Georgia for Christmas the other week and noticed that it had Terry O'Quinn (glad to see that after Millennium his talents are getting appreciated again) and Dominic Monaghan, who played a midget in some little art-house film called The Lord of the Rings. But I guess a show that by all accounts has polar bears running loose on a tropical island should be looked into no matter how good the cast is, right? Promise, I'll try to dig it and post some thoughts.

Two of the shows haven't even begun airing at all yet, but I'm already there, maaaaan: the revived Doctor Who, which the BBC starts running this spring (in case you haven't heard: the Daleks will be returning!) and the untitled Star Wars series set for 2006... 'nuff said.

But there's only ONE television series on the air right now that has so hooked me as to not dare miss any new episodes, if I can help it. After more than a year since the last original chapter, the Carnivàle comes back to town with its second season tonight at 9 PM EST on HBO.

Geez, where to begin. Well it must be said from the getgo: THIS IS THE COOLEST TEEVEE SHOW IN ALL CREATION RIGHT NOW!! And what first made my ears stand up was when the teaser commercials began in fall of 2003 and they really played up Carnivàle's setting: 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. With most of the story taking place in the shriveled wastes of the Dust Bowl. Now, any TV show can have the classic struggle between Good and Evil... that's done all the time one way or another. But to kick it all off with a bulldozer threatening to demolish a foreclosed shanty a'la The Grapes of Wrath? Now, THAT takes brass ones! As a student of history with a particular interest in the era, I've found Carnivàle to be both remarkably accurate with its setting and utterly refreshing in how it draws from the VERY-scarcely tapped mythos of that time. Suddenly the Great Depression seems less a time of sorrow than it was of mystery. But I'll let the opening prologue from the very first episode speak for it:
"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."
Those words are spoken by Samson, played by Michael J. Anderson... you know, the "dancing dwarf" from Twin Peaks and anytime he shows up, you know yer in for something else. He's but one part of another reason why Carnivàle so arrests your senses: the cast. You got Anderson, Nick Stahl (played John Connor in Terminator 3, Clancy Brown (yup, the Kurgan himself), Adrienne Barbeau ("That's Maggie: Brain's squeeze."), Amy Madigan (who went from sweet lil' homebody in Field of Dreams to apostlette of Hell), Ralph Waite ("Good night John-Boy!") and more than time really allows me to write about at the moment (got church in a little while :-).

This show is extremely well-paced. Some thought the first season was slow and plodding. I found it to be patient and considerate: you get a sense that these were real people (though some of them are bearded ladies and human lizards) with real histories behind them. There's definitely a sense that there's going to be a massive conflagration between Heaven and Hell... but there's no rushing to that just yet and there doesn't need to be. But when it does happen it's going to hurt the longtime fans of the show quite a bit, because they'll already have been made to understand and empathize with these characters and if some of them get hurt or worse and we hurt with them... well, that is effective storytelling, my friends. The first season was where we got to see all the pieces and how they got placed on the board: season two should be when the real opening moves are made.

Which should shed light on some (hopefully not all though, at least this season) of the many mysteries of Carnivàle. Not the least of which has been the biggest: who – or what – is Management? Season One's finale ended with Ben Hawkins (Stahl's character) standing over the dead body of mentalist Lodz in Management's trailer, confronting whoever it is behind the curtain. According to one "Quint" at Ain't It Cool News, the identity of Management will be revealed tonight... although whether we actually see Management itself might not happen yet. Lots of other mysteries, but I'll let you discover what those are yourself.

An intriguing setting, wonderful actors, an immersive storyline, and in my opinion what has been VERY respectful treatment of the Christian religion... well, for all those reasons and more, that's why I plan to park my keister in front of the teevee tonight and watch Carnivàle's season two opener. Check it out if you got HBO. Beg friends who have HBO to let you watch it at their place if you don't (but remember to wipe your feet before going in and onto their nice clean carpet!).