Test Pilot: File #27, Carnivàle

Test Pilot #27: Carnivàle

Debut date: September 7, 2003

Series legacy: A rabidly-beloved series that was deemed too dense and too slow for even the refined pallets of HBO’s audience

For nearly a decade-and-a-half, HBO has been the biggest power player in the television industry. More than any other individual network or entity, HBO has shaped our perceptions of quality and complexity and perhaps most importantly, the cable giant has led the charge in raising culture’s expectations and evaluation of television as a storytelling medium. Though other networks have gained ground on HBO in recent years (most notably FX and AMC), the “not TV” network still remains the gold standard for A-level television.

But we aren’t here to celebrate HBO’s obvious and warranted successes. Instead, this theme hopes to explore five of HBO’s supposed missteps from the last handful of years. HBO programming takes risks, but these five series apparently didn’t take the proper ones or executed those risks improperly. Why did these series fail? What about these series made them incompatible with HBO’s (or its audience’s) expected level of quality? Are they even failures at all? The goal here is both to address these questions and pull forth some of the blemishes on the record that HBO has purposefully tried to whitewash in recent years. HBO might not be TV, but it also isn’t perfect.

In today’s entry, we look to explore one of, if not the, most overtly “odd” drama series that HBO has brought to the small screen in Carnivàle. The supremely dense and sprawling story appeared to be crafting an extended tale about the basic forces of good and evil while addressing all sorts of questions in relationship to religion, magic, free will and destiny, but was unceremoniously cut down after just two 12-episode seasons in what was supposedly planned to be a six-season story. The series’ massive budget (nearly $4 million dollars an episode, according to my research) and the flaccid ratings made it easy for then-HBO honcho Chris Albrecht to pull the plug. It probably didn’t hurt matters that HBO had similarly-expensive and massive Rome coming a few months later in the summer of 2005. Nevertheless, Carnivàle remains one of those series that people on the internet like to bring up as a pillar of disrespected, forgotten untapped potential. Today, we explore that if any of those adjectives are actually valid.

To help me to said exploration, I’ve actually found someone who has seen Carnivàle before. Jeremy Mongeau is a dropout of Carleton University and a longtime television enthusiast. And of course, you can follow Jeremy on Twitter. Jeremy, take it away:

Early on in Carnivàle‘s first hour, there’s a dense montage of nightmarish images, rich with symbols and teasers. I was in high school in the time, and instantly drawn-in. The first thing I did after finishing the pilot was to rush off to the internet, to try and make sense of all hints and images hidden in that montage. There had been plenty of series on television that inspired that kind of discussion, but few that encouraged it in quite the same way as Carnivàle.

Those sequences were custom made for internet dissection, for TV viewing in the age of TiVo. The HBO dramas that came before Carnivàle were book club series – their main points of discussion were characters, themes, and arcs. But Carnivàle‘s discourse was all about the mythology, and allusions ranging from the Knights Templar to the Manhattan Project. It didn’t come from the tradition of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under – instead, it fit right alongside Twin Peaks and The X-Files.

Carnivàle was one of HBO’s periodic attempts to encroach on the territory of the broadcast networks. Where The Wire was designed as a corrective for the network cop series, this was an attempt to take on cult television. HBO seemed to be saying they could take a series a network could cancel in three episodes, and turn it into a six-season saga. Could the It’s Not-TV Network bring together quality audiences and genre fans?

No. A resounding and emphatic no.

It’s not hard to see why Carnivàle was a failure. There’s something almost perverse about how eager the series is to embrace the conventions of cult TV – and embracing cult TV means flirting with failure. With Carnivàle‘s pilot, it was more like a full-on courtship. It’s as if writer Daniel Knauf had a checklist of off-putting and unmarketable aspects, and hit them one by one:

A dense mythology? Check. Nonlinear nightmare imagery? Check. A cast of characters, rife with deformities and infirmities? Check. Oppressive Dust Bowl aesthetics? Check. Dead mothers, dead babies, dead kittens? Check, check, check.

That’s not to say that the Carnivàle pilot is some alienating act of televisual avant-garde. It wants to entertain, it wants to captivate. But it’s still a hard sell. It moves with an infamously slow pace, and wears a grim and elegiac tone. Other HBO series flirt with the aspirational, or offer some kind of lurid thrills – few of which are on display here.

Carnivàle would grow into a compelling and confident series, down the line. But the pilot is a different story. There are a lot of intentions and aspects that don’t come together. More than anything else, the series is a victim of its deliberate pace.

Knauf comes from the John Michael Straczynski School of Fastidious Planning. There was a detailed six season plan for the series, and it shows. When your chapter marks are so clearly marked in your head, you’re in no hurry to get to those destinations. The pilot is slow-moving and vague, always holding its cards close to its chest. Being on a network as creator-friendly (or creator-indulgent) as HBO gave it a confidence it could take its time to tell its story.

The upside of Carnivàle‘s pace? There’s an incomparable sense of atmosphere and place. The pilot is directed by Rodrigo Garcia, the most stylistically bold of HBO’s house directors. The Dust Bowl setting leaps of the screen in all its dirt and splendor. The visual centerpiece of the pilot is Ben Hawkins’ tour through the bustling carnival grounds. It is equal parts inviting and off-putting, and dazzling in a way some of the more prosaic supernatural imagery isn’t.

As with most HBO dramas, the casting is top-to-bottom impeccable. Here, most are still feeling their way into the tone of the series, and opting on the side of restraint – which works well enough for Nick Stahl’s Ben Hawkins. But genre veterans like Patrick Bachau, Michael J. Anderson, and Clancy Brown bite into the script with relish, and are accordingly the stand-outs. Brown in particular has the task of anchoring a disconnected subplot, and does so with all the right flourishes.

These are good indicators of potential, but that doesn’t mean they add up into a coherent series, though. The pilot offers a lot of potential versions of the series – dour Dust Bowl drama, an epic fantasy saga, a carnie slice-of-life series – but commits to none of them. One can’t blame Knauf for indulging in the free reign given to him by the network. Indeed, all the potential in the series would end up coalescing into an enjoyable series, down the line. If Carnivàle stands as a failure, it’s because HBO wasn’t sure of what it wanted out of the series. It represents the moment where their ambition hit the wall of a fiscal reality – and this strange, expensive series was the casualty. When you’re aiming for a saga, it doesn’t matter if you cancel it three episodes in, or two seasons in: Unfinished is unfinished.

Never let it be said that HBO doesn’t learn from their failures, though. Six years after the demise of Carnivàle, they ended up finding a way to bring together mainstream, quality, and genre audiences with Game of Thrones. It’s accessible and focused in ways its predecessor wasn’t. It’s a shame it took HBO so long to figure it out.


And now, my newbie perspective on the Carnivàle pilot:

Carnivàle is not like the other four series in this theme. K Street, The Comeback, Lucky Louie and John From Cincinnati were all cut down after lukewarm-received single seasons. Carnivàle debuted to the highest new series ratings in the history of HBO (a number that was later taken down by Deadwood, but still) and its first season numbers were higher than Boardwalk Empire’s current ratings.

Unlike those other four series, when Carnivàle was cancelled, there was substantial fan outcry. Apparently HBO received more than 50,000 the first weekend after the cancellation news broke. That’s not necessarily Chuck fandom-level of commitment, but that’s still impressive for a series that seemed nearly impenetrable. It’s somewhat difficult for me to say that a series two seasons was a flat-out failure, but the fact that Carnivàle producer Daniel Knauf had a six-season story planned and HBO basically said “no thanks” tells a whole lot. There’s no question that this series was cancelled. It didn’t have an ending. Hell, based on everything I’ve read, it looks like Carnivàle didn’t even really get started.

Much like the first entry in this theme K Street, Carnivàle is a curious representation of “failure” because it seems to be tailor-made for the HBO lineup. There is no way that this story could have – or would have – worked on any other network and many of the things that were probably ultimately problems for Carnivàle’s long-term health were things that made it a perfect fit for HBO in the first place. Again, I don’t need to sell you folks on HBO’s willingness to take major risks with stories and approaches that would never work elsewhere, but A.) I’m confident that Carnivàle looks, feels and plays like a perfect fit for HBO and B.) therefore I’m also convinced that it probably never should have been a television series in the first place.

Jeremy made some great points about this opening episode and its aims to be the HBO version of “cult television” and while I definitely see those elements at play here, Carnivàle still feels a lot like a typical HBO drama pilot (obviously, it’s much more similar than our topic of conversation last go-around, K Street, that’s for sure). This initial offering literally has a narrative sprawling across the country, introduces a dozen or more characters, seems to perfectly capture a specific historical period with visual and thematic flare and wastes no time wasting time. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, as HBO drama pilots often choose to drop the audience unknowingly into a televisual version of a 12-foot pool with the hopes that they can swim around on their own for a few episodes before they get their sea legs under them.

However, where Carnivàle differs from say, something like Boardwalk Empire or the aforementioned Game of Thrones is what I guess we could call “mystery.” All pilots are supposed to leave the audience looking for answers, but I’m not entirely sure that Carnivàle asks too many questions to begin with. There are hints towards various overarching stories, but not one of them is overtly addressed. Well, because nothing is overt with Carnivàle. This episode is almost entirely reliant on its admittedly beautiful aesthetics and atmospheric strengths and when it comes to character or narrative development, Carnivàle errs on the side of “not showing, but not telling either.” I was able to make some assumptions about character moments because I’d done some Wikipedia-enabled digging about future events, though I’m unsure if I’d have the same kind of awareness had I experienced Carnivàle completely blind.

People have raised a little hell about the slow pace and the lack of episodic storytelling aimless of recent HBO series like Boardwalk or even Treme, but I think those complaints only pop up when the series are doing a bad job of being engaging. I had my issues with the first half of Boardwalk Empire’s first season and most of them stemmed from the series’ inability to be particularly interesting. The sprawling storytelling and the snail’s pace can work just fine if everything else is on-track, but when it’s not, we notice. This is point is probably no more true for me than with Carnivàle. If we’re breaking it down to “stuff happening” terms, this episode is substantially slower than most, if not all of HBO’s recent drama pilots (Treme might be the one exception), but Carnivàle’s opening episode still works for me because of the mystery and because of the strengths in aesthetics and atmosphere.

Seriously, this thing is gorgeous. HBO always knows how to capture the visual pallet of whatever era or world their series are set in, but some of the shots and color filters here are just lovely. I couldn’t help but think about this in comparison to something like Hell on Wheels, a pilot that tried too hard to replicate the dusty golds and browns that Carnivàle works in beautifully and ultimately fails to create any other color that’s not puke gray. Obviously, the great look of this pilot cost a heck of a lot of money and the high budget is one of the reasons the series was ultimately cancelled, but I think it’d almost be worth it to have another 23 hours of this visual pallet.

One of the big things that helps Carnivàle’s case is its performances, many of which are unsurprisingly muted, but also tremendously compelling at the same time. I tweeted this a few nights ago when I was watching the episode in preparation for this piece, but I’m a bit confused as to why Nick Stahl didn’t really happen. He had a number of relatively high-profile roles in the mid-90s and early 00s including Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a mediocre film that he was actually pretty great in. IMDb tells me that he’s spent the last few years starring in a bunch of films that I have either never heard of or would never watch. Sorry, Mirrors 2. I guess he’s one of those actors that doesn’t really fit in with big blockbusters or romantic comedies, which gives him very little to do to stay in the mainstream eye (outside of doing another television series, that is). In any event, Stahl is similarly rock-solid in this pilot. He brings a sizable sense of humanity to the character of Ben Hawkins and even though there isn’t much on the page for him to work with, Stahl helps Ben work as an initial protagonist who has lived a tough life but doesn’t really know how to express that with anything other than dejected silence.

I was actually much less impressed with Clancy Brown then I expected to be, but I think that’s only because I suspected that his character would be a bit more animated and have more gravitas than he did, but again, that was obviously an artistic choice that may or may not pay off down the line. Per usual with any HBO drama, the supporting cast is jam-packed with great performers, as Tim DeKay, Clea DuVall and Michael J. Anderson are all engaging and intriguing without being overly and unnecessarily mysterious. I was definitely interested in the few narrative threads the pilot introduced, but I mostly just enjoyed watching the characters of the Carnivàle hang out and kooky. The performances fit right in with the series’ visual and atmospheric aims quite well.

Overall, I actually liked Carnivàle a lot more than I expected to. I’ve heard conflicting reports over the years about its quality and I had this one random person in my life with awful taste continue to tell me just how great it was so I was inherently distrusting of what it could be, but I could see why a number of people found themselves hooked by this pilot and the series as a whole. I actually want to watch more, even with the knowledge that I would be jilted if there were any expectations for answers or conclusions. As a pilot, Carnivàle is actually mysterious and grimy in some interesting ways.

But obviously what makes a successful pilot doesn’t make a successful series, even if you’re the Next Great HBO Drama. Much like with K Street and its desires to push the boundaries of HBO’s reliance on verisimilitude and “realness,” Carnivàle embodies the inherently slow pace and plotting and novelty of the typical HBO drama that it actually begins to challenge it. And even though I haven’t seen any of the post-pilot episodes, I can see why the glacial pace and perhaps-too-mysterious overarching narrative turned viewers away. K Street forced HBO viewers to ask themselves how real they wanted something and this series forced them to ponder how slow they wanted things and how long they were willing to wait for resolutions.

Carnivàle was also just flat-out weird and actually not like much I’ve seen on television before. When I think of HBO, I think of a network that’s thrives on making programs I’ve never seen before (even if they’re dressed up, more complex versions of other genres), but Carnivàle is probably the second weirdest series they’ve ever born into this world (John From Cincinnati is clearly the first, folks). So just like with verisimilitude and slow pace, apparently HBO and its viewers have a breaking point when it comes to straight-up oddness. Atmosphere and innovative visual magic only go so far when “nothing” is happening and people act weird.

Finally, watching this pilot and reading Jeremy’s section has brought me wonder something that I will share with you now: Why doesn’t HBO “do” mystery? If I think about the heart of HBO’s drama output over the last decade – The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and even True Blood – I don’t come across series that are driven by mystery and suspense related to mystery. We can’t forget that the final sequence of The Sopranos finale is there, but that moment is definitely more of an outlier than anything else. I know that Jeremy said that HBO learned from their mistakes with Game of Thrones*, but even that series isn’t necessarily driven by big questions and constant mystery. There are things the audience doesn’t know, but the mythology isn’t powered by unforeseen wonder and questioning. Character choices drive the action.

*I guess it’s fitting that Jeremy made that point considering Game of Thrones is adapted from a long book series and Carnivàle definitely should have been a book series to begin with. 

Maybe I’m missing something, as I haven’t seen a good amount of many HBO dramas, but this is still a curious point to me. Is there something about mystery that doesn’t fit in with the kind of thematic and narrative work HBO prefers its series to do? Does the generally sprawling, but straightforward storytelling approach lend credence to the realness and the verisimilitude and the unknown eschew it too much for HBO’s liking? Hyper-serialized series driven by mystery are challenging, but they can also be tremendously successful, even when they sort of fail to stick the landing completely (see: Lost, Battlestar Galactica). It appears to me that if there’s anything that HBO learned from Carnivàle, it’s that not to get involved with a series that relies too much on clandestine storytelling.

It’s very interesting to me that the series that embody many (too many?) of HBO’s most crucial brand points or features are the ones that don’t actually work. Is the “HBO audience” and the “cult TV” audience two completely demographics? Were people who loved The Sopranos or The Wire turned off by Carnivàle because it was too slow or too weird? Does HBO want to cultivate such a prestigious fanbase empowered by academic –like detachment that the mystery-centric series, one that requires larger, perhaps more dedicated fan action, just doesn’t fit in with the brand identity? These aren’t questions I can answer, but they are ones that I will continue to think about as we move forward – because even HBO’s failures are so damn interesting.


Conclusions on legacy: Weird, likely so weird that it makes sense that HBO let it go, even if it’s disappointing in the aftermath


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