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October 7, 2015

Gone Too Soon: Carnivàle

by Jason Hughes, posted Aug 17th 2009 10:02AM
CarnivaleLong-time readers of this site might remember the recurring feature "Short-Lived Shows." While this column may bear a resemblance to that beloved early TV Squad staple, there are notable differences. In particular, I'll be going much more in-depth about the show's fate, its cast, continuing fan support, and possible story continuations in different mediums.

Also, to make this column, a show must have actually been good. Shows that are canceled and deserve it certainly aren't "Gone Too Soon." They're perhaps not gone soon enough. Furthermore, a GTS could just as easily have been on the air for years before ending abruptly. If I'm sitting here wondering what happens next and now I'm never going to find out, that's gone too soon.

Which brings us to our first entry. HBO is known for groundbreaking television, but even they didn't know how much ground they broke with Carnivàle in September 2003. On the surface, it was yet another brilliantly produced period piece, perfectly capturing the look and feel of the Great Depression era United States. Underneath, it was nothing short of the epic struggle between good and evil.

What was it?
[Spoilers Ahead!] Carnivàle began as two seemingly separate stories. In one, we had Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), an escaped convict with mysterious healing powers who finds himself in the midst of a traveling carnival after the death of his mother. Plagued by visions of a greater destiny, over the course of 24 episodes, Ben becomes a man, defeats his enemy and becomes the de facto leader of the Carnivàle.

Clancy Brown &Nick Stahl in CarnivaleOn the opposite side, we have Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), a small-time minister who, through his own power of suggestion, builds a flock of followers for his own nefarious deeds. Ironically, it is this man of the cloth who is the true evil of the series. And though he is finally taken down by Ben in the series finale, his estranged daughter seemingly resurrects him, as she comes to embrace her own dark powers.

The success of the show came in the beauty of its production values in depicting the Dust Bowl era so magnificently, and in the huge cast of amazing characters. Another significant arc is that of Sofie (Clea DuVall), who begins as a sad member of the carnival who falls in love with Ben and ends as that daughter embracing her own dark powers after her mother's death drives her to leave the carnival. Sadness and depression was, appropriately enough, all too common among the ensemble.

Why did it have to go?
When Carnivàle premiered in 2003, it set a short-lived record for the highest debut ever on HBO at 5.3 million (Deadwood's premiere topped it only a few months later), and maintained solid numbers throughout its first year. But it would be more than twelve months before season two began. By then, the show had lost two thirds of its audience, and couldn't even muster an average of two million viewers.

Add to that a $4 million dollar budget per episode for a 12-episode season, and the fact that creator Daniel Knauf had plotted the show out in three two-seaons arcs, turning a pick-up for season three into an almost essential two-year renewal. Knauf had created a three-act story set to take place over six seasons, so we were only a third of the way through it when the tents came down for good.

Michael J. AndersonHow do I find out what happens next?
Knauf seems to be holding out hope that he'll get to finish the story of Carnivàle. He rejected an offer by HBO to wrap up plotlines in a two-hour movie, indicating that wouldn't be nearly enough time. Early rumors of a continuation as a comic book series haven't materialized.

Part of the problem is that HBO owns the property in such a way that Knauf can never just walk off and do it elsewhere, in whatever medium, without HBO's support. As such, and perhaps as a sign of his fading confidence, he's released background notes about the characters that hints to their ultimate fates, as well as more specific details for a few of them.

Particularly, we're told that both Jonesy and Brother Justin survived their respective "deaths" in the finale. As for Justin and Ben, both would have been severely weakened by their confrontation as season three got under way. As such Sofie battles it out with Justin's sister Iris for control of his congregation. Even more disturbing, Sofie would have wound up married to Justin at some point and possibly with a child.

Where did the cast wind up?
  • Nick Stahl (Ben Hawkins) remains active in both films and television, with many films currently in production and a recent guest spot on Law & Order: SVU.
  • Clancy Brown (Brother Justin Crowe) has a recurring role in Lost, and is probably most known for voicing Mr. Krabs on Spongebob Squarepants.
  • Michael J. Anderson (Samson) hasn't done much work since this show closed, but the diminutive actor did play a leprechaun in two episodes of Charmed.
  • Tim DeKay (Jonesy) is a character actor who can be seen on lots of television shows, most recently as a recurring love interest on The New Adventures of Old Christine. Next, he'll be starring in the new USA series White Collar, debuting October 23.
  • Clea DuVall (Sofie) went on to a notable guest role on Heroes as an FBI agent in season two, among other work.
  • John Carroll Lynch (Varlyn Stroud) nabbed a regular role on FOX's K-Ville, but that didn't last long either.
  • Ralph Waite (Rev. Norman Balthus) has transitioned to a recurring role in daytime on Days of Our Lives, among other television roles.
  • Robert Knepper (Tommy Dolan) did very well coming out of this series, landing a regular role on Prison Break as the creep-tacular "T-Bag." Now he's signed on to appear as, ironically, the leader of a traveling carnival on the new season of Heroes.
  • The rest of the cast can be seen in various small roles on film and in guest roles and voice-over work all over television.

Who cares?
Not too many people anymore, if online activity is any indication. At least in getting a revival of the show going. They were rabid for the first year or so after the show ended, hosting their own conventions and petitioning the network.

They haven't given up, but with no positive signs of anything happening for the past four years, it is hard to keep the faith. HBO is keeping the Carnivàle site up, though they seem to do that for most of their original series.

When can I see it?
Well, since it isn't airing anywhere online or on television right now, you can see it whenever you want. So long as you own the DVD sets. Both seasons are available, so at least there's that.

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Well all I can is all the good show's don't last long but all the one's that are crap does. To bad thing is they wan't let him go to another network like syfy. Come on they don't want it and the fans want to see it play out they need to work something out or let him go finish it somewhere else.

April 25 2012 at 1:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It was a travesty that both Carnival and Deadwood were canceled.
Deadwood was the best but Carnival phenomenal too.
I tell people (who havn't seen it) that Deadwood was a paradox of such incredibly intelligent writing w/ equally - stunning profanity all at once!
I got board w/ True Blood quickly.
I'm very leary of committing to an HBO series again. Typical penny wise pound foolish corporate crap if you ask me. It's pathetically common w/ powerful corporate (non creative exec) people in media TV & Radio) to make decisions that turn out to be totally screwed up but will never admit it and change course because that MUST be right at all costs. I've seen this personally.

August 19 2009 at 1:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Daune Calovini

Interesting that I just read the article on shows that Fox cancelled too soon. My statement there is that I won't get involved in any Fox series after Firefly and then Drive.

I was sad when Carnavale ended. I was really interested in seeing what would happen. Lots of creepiness, and like mj wrote, above, a scene that has continued to stay with me. When Sophie ran away from the carnival, she was walking down a dusty road. It was just a short shot, but her mother's shadow was following her, and that was just ... sublime.

After Deadwood, I cancelled my HBO and wrote to tell them I'd be back when they wrapped up the stories of my Al and Seth and company. They did David Milch and the cast and crew a great disservice.

I miss Entourage, but we buy the seasons on DVD, and I just received Season One of True Blood for my birthday. That's all quite a bit cheaper than the monthly subscription, and get to stick to my principles!

Carnavale made me want to drink absinthe! And where else do you get to watch sideshow sex?

August 18 2009 at 8:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jason Sanders

One of the most underrated series ever! I really believe the deep mythology hurt it in the ratings. You can see the influence of this series on other shows. Even True Blood is ripping it off (the whole "light" vs "darkness" storylines, the devil black eyes, even Scott Winant directing a few episodes.). When HBO canceled this series, they forever traded away wonder for reason.

August 18 2009 at 6:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Guy Budziak

I've yet to take the plunge with CARNIVALE. Having watched DEADWOOD, THE SOPRANOS, and THE WIRE, and having immensely enjoyed all three, I know it's just a matter of time before I catch up with this one. One of my favorite films is NIGHTMARE ALLEY, I'm up for anything that takes place in a carny, for that reason alone I'm eager to see this, just waiting for the right deal costwise. I no longer have cable, television's just too heavily larded with dreck anymore, but because these shows display a commitment to quality I'll rent or buy them. It's just a shame the HBO execs don't possess the same commitment as the visionaries who create these shows, but hey, isn't that the way of the world?

August 18 2009 at 8:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Carnivàle was in one word, amazing. Such a well planned, and executed story. It was clearly evident Knauf knew exactly where this story was headed and what he was doing.

While I'll admit the first season might have been a little slower than it needed to be, and because of this wasn't able to get quite the proper following you can tell they really fixed that with season 2 and it's such a shame HBO didn't do a better job of marketing it. As a matter of fact, I still believe that was a huge part of it.

Alas, what is quite literally one of the best TV shows ever made had a short 2 season run and didn't get the love, respect or time to tell its story.

Anyone reading this who hasn't seen it, I strongly urge you to go grab the DVDs. It's totally worth it.

August 18 2009 at 1:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Greatly enjoyed Carnivale, but it was frustratingly slow at times, and the season finale that turned out to be the series finale was a little too wacky, IMHO. My wife and I both "pretend" that the show ended differently.

August 17 2009 at 3:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I finally went out and bought these DVDs and I don't regret it at all. It doesn't have a strong conclusion, but it's still an epic show.

August 17 2009 at 2:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Scott K

My favorite TV show of all time. Glad to see its still floating around in peoples' memories. I don't understand why HBO just doesn't work something out to let some novels be written. Even if they wouldn't be bestsellers, they would be profiting from the franchise more than they are now.

August 17 2009 at 2:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Scott K's comment

Many of us attended CarnyCon and we fought valiantly, writing letters and sending e-mails to HBO execs, only to be ignored. Ultimately, a lot of fans on the SaveCarnivale list-serv got frustrated and gave up, but many fans still communicate and we keep hoping. Dan Knauf is one of the gentlemen of the TV biz, and I'd like to see good things happen for this creative and unique show. If HBO doesn't want it, why won't they let it go and let some other network like SyFy pick it up? Carnivale deserves to be seen!

August 17 2009 at 2:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My whole family loved Carnivale. It was so darn creepy, you can't stay away from it. To this day, I have nightmares about what I think is the saddest scene, ever; the group leaving the mining town of dead folk, with the dead girl standing at the window, watching them leave, and another ghostly hand reaching for her. Brrrrrrr. I had a hard time watching after that.

August 17 2009 at 1:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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