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In a funhouse mirror

HBO takes a risk with the surreal world of 'Carnivale,' whose macabre plot is already stirring interest.

September 14, 2003|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

When the inevitable "Twin Peaks" and "X-Files" comparisons start, Dan Knauf will be ready. His Depression-era television show "Carnivale," about traveling carnies, debuting tonight on HBO, ambitiously stirs a pot of altered realities, figures sinister and righteous, supernatural powers and societal outcasts, then covers it all with a patina of carefully cultivated weirdness.

The 45-year-old creator-executive producer -- who is too much a fan of his inspirations (read: geek) to sneer at associations Lynchian or otherwise -- knows what's coming. Over a recent lunch, Knauf vocalizes the complaints that have dogged stylish, great-first-impression shows like David Lynch's and Chris Carter's. "Is there really a 'there' there? Will it run out of gas after seven episodes? Will they start making it up as they go along?" he says in a concerned timbre as he plays the part of prospective convert to his 10-years-in-gestation baby.

Not to worry, he answers. "I know what the story is. I know where it ends. I know the last frame of the last shot of the last episode." And if that finale happened to be multiple seasons down the line, says Knauf, whose only previous credits are writing the 1994 HBO movie "Blind Justice" and CBS' short-lived thriller "Wolf Lake," why, that would be just fine.

"Carnivale" already has a popular Yahoo discussion group, and for HBO -- advertiser-free but water-cooler-dependent -- that kind of buildup for an expensive, risky show is golden. The network is in a mildly precarious spot with such stalwarts as "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos" not long for this world (the spike-heeled vixens swill their last pink cosmo next year, while Tony has two more years of therapy bills to pay), "Six Feet Under" experiencing fan slump and the finicky Larry David deciding "Curb your Enthusiasm's" fate year to year.

Can a new show set against the backdrop of the Dust Bowl's crushing poverty and concerning nothing less than the war between good and evil keep HBO in the vanguard? Or will even self-proclaimed adventurous viewers just scratch their heads at a Steinbeck-like allegory played out between a quiet young Okie fugitive adopted by carnies ("Terminator 3's" Nick Stahl) and a tortured Methodist preacher (Clancy Brown)? "Carnivale" brimswith ambiguity, yet takes an old-fashioned approach to its filmic storytelling (no quick cuts; minimal cursing). And the visual bravura of the period detail -- from the dust-swept daylight of the carnies' lives to the austerity of an evangelist's world -- must rest within a mood of the macabre.

Stahl is curious about who will watch. "A lot of people just want to flip on the TV and be entertained," he says.. "This is something that involves you, that you have to give your full attention to."

Caroline Strauss, HBO's executive vice president in charge of original programming, admits "Carnivale" -- which also stars Adrienne Barbeau as a snake charmer, diminutive Lynch regular Michael J. Anderson as the troupe's boss and Amy Madigan as the minister's sister -- is ' ' 180degrees away from the kinds of series we've done before." Namely, it's not contemporary, not satirical, not urban, and defiantly otherworldly. "I'm not saying the show is Harry Potter, but there's a yearning for magic right now, in myths and sagas," says Strauss. "We live in complicated times with a lot of uncertainty, so I think this show has very broad potential."

A long development

Knauf, a burly, gregarious raconteur, found the creative sources of "Carnivale" in - the personal, the mysterious and the historical. There was watching his L.A.-based salesman father deal with adult-onset post-polio, adjusting to a wheelchair-bound existence: "I grew up with a guy who was looked at as different and came away with a clear idea of people's perceptions." Then there was his love of the mystical, anything-goes qualities of traveling carnivals: Knauf was especially emboldened by filmmaker Tod Browning's three-dimensional tale of sideshow workers, the 1932 cult classic "Freaks." Finally, he added the conceit that the last true age of magic, of heaven- or hell-sent powers, was in the topsy-turvy '30s before the atomic bomb showed we could "harness the power of the stuff that everything's made of, and destroy ourselves with it." All told, it was a decade-long coalescing of ideas. "For this show to arrive on the scene full-blown in my head, I'd have to be an inmate," he says.

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