Time again, friends, for the Epic Showdown Between Good and Evil, as the main contenders of the Apocalypse return once more to duke it out for your entertainment: Here comes "Carnivale," a Depression-era fantasy with Nick Stahl ("Terminator 3") and Clancy Brown ("The Shawshank Redemption") as unwitting pawns of supernatural destiny, and HBO's latest bid to show you something you haven't seen before.
It may well be that you haven't seen this before, but only if you haven't been looking. Epic Showdowns Between Good and Evil now constitute a whole cinematic subgenre, from the "Omen" films to "End of Days" to the sub-subgenre of the true-believing "Left Behind" series. And this is certainly not the first time a darkly enchanted, mythologically freighted carnival has wickedly this way come (see: "The Circus of Dr. Lao," published in 1934 -- the very year in which "Carnivale" is set -- or various episodes of "Scooby-Doo"). Nor is there anything novel about the idea that Christ and anti-Christ might turn up again in some out-of-the-way place (the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and Central California, respectively); nor in the trope of the unwanted special gift, so often and so well explored by "The X-Files"; nor in the character of the evil preacher (Brown), or in this case the most likely evil preacher.
Even Michael J. Anderson, the 3-foot, 1-inch actor who plays the carnival boss, though not the Big Boss -- that is the off-screen presence known only as "Management" -- you may well have seen before, as a regular on "Twin Peaks," or guesting on shows from "Picket Fences" to "Port Charles." "To each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness," he is made to say in a faux-biblical preamble that goes on strangely to equate the death of magic with the birth of the A-bomb.
None of that would have to stand in the way of a good time, of course -- not the pastiche, not the logical inconsistencies, not even the overheated writing, which after all come standard with the form. (Compare "Buffy": "Into every generation a slayer is born.") But the "atmosphere," which is ponderous, gets into everything -- like the Oklahoma dust that blows through the opening episode -- and gums up the works: "Carnivale" (created by Daniel Knauf, who wrote for the extremely short-lived "Wolf Lake") moves like molasses and, for all its careful creepiness, generates very little actual suspense and precious few moments of unpredictable wonder.
Worse, in the three episodes available for review, a full-blooded character has yet to emerge. It is all costumes, caricature and cryptic talk, and not much talk at that. (There is a good deal of sulking, however.) It's possible that the filmmakers mean to reveal their people slowly through the 12-episode season; but it's also possible that there is nothing much to know. And though the script drops a reference to Tod Browning's infamous "Freaks" ("One of us?" Clea DuVall asks Stahl, taking a line from that actual 1930s sideshow horror-show), it does not have the courage of its own freaks. A giant -- a real one, and not as pretty as the rest of the cast -- disappears from view after the first episode. Even notorious performance artist and multiple "Star Trek" vet John Fleck, as lizard-man Gecko, gets little more to do for all his hours in makeup than wag his tongue and roll his eyes.
There are pleasures here, nevertheless. The large cast is uniformly fine; especially good company are Patrick Bachau ("The Pretender"), with his cat's-purr voice, as a blind mentalist; Anderson, a little stiff with his lines but comfortable in his skin; and DuVall as Sophie, a Tarot-card-reading, budding love interest for Stahl.
Above all, the show is well-mounted -- beautifully composed, lovingly lighted, handsomely dressed. If you like old trucks, this is just the series for you.
When: Premieres 9:35-10:35 p.m. Sunday. Regularly airs 9:30-10:30 p.m.
Rating: The network has rated the series TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).
Nick Stahl...Ben Hawkins
Clancy Brown...Justin Crowe
Amy Madigan...Iris Crowe
Michael J. Anderson...Samson
Creator, Daniel Knauf. Executive producers, Knauf, Howard Klein, Ron Moore. Writer, Knauf.