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Courtesy of HBO

Carnivàle

Depression-era carnival and its patrons are shown with earthy authenticity

By Patricia Ingold

Carnivàle
(HBO)


Carnivàle
overflows with magic and mystery — perhaps too much for its own good.

This two-season drama series is set in the American Dust Bowl of 1935 against a backdrop of rising fascism and communism. In this atmosphere of gloom, a touring caravan of carnival performers stops at the side of the road where 18-year-old Ben Hawkins is burying his mother and trying to save the family farm. Hawkins — with few options left — joins their ranks. Soon, his secret gift is revealed: his touch has the power to heal.

Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds in California where Methodist minister Brother Justin Crowe believes God has chosen him to serve the Dust Bowl migrants. He too has a supernatural power; he is able to reveal people’s worst sins simply by touching them.

The two stories intertwine with yet more supernaturalism. Hawkins and Brother Justin are both dreaming about the same characters. Eventually the two storylines merge on a ferris wheel in New Canaan, Calif.

What does it all mean? That’s the trouble with Carnivàle — it can be baffling. But confusion is a minor complaint. Carnivàle is otherwise glorious. Its sad landscapes depict the Dust Bowl experience of ruined farmers and disabled children fated to be carnival “freaks.”

The carnival itself includes all the usual suspects: the bearded lady, the blind mentalist, the snake charmer. But they aren’t mere attractions — they’re an engaging family of social misfits who fear destitution as much as the farmers they seek to entertain.

For a series that’s been accused of being too magical, herein lies its real enchantment: peel away the layers of prophecy, mythology and hocus-pocus, and there remains an engrossing Depression-era drama about people surviving tough times the only way they know how. And that’s no magic trick.


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