"Carnivàle" Broke My Heart

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful sequence ever aired on television:


This essay is part of a series about our favorite TV shows past.

Previously: You, Me And “Star Trek: The Next Generation”

It’s the opening scene for episode two of “Carnivàle.” I’ve probably watched it 100 times. I know every motion, piece of furniture, item of clothing, dialogue snippet, and character backstory. I know the song playing is Ruth Etting’s 1929 hit “Love Me or Leave Me.”

And yet still, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.

That was kind of the experience of watching the show. Trying to sum up what happened during the show’s two seasons on HBO is an exercise that should not be attempted without copious charts, print-outs of Wikipedia pages, and rock bottom-levels of alcohol intake. But I’ll give it a sure-to-be-flawed shot.

On the surface “Carnivàle” was about a traveling carnival roaming America’s southwest during the Dust Bowl, but the true story — the actual tale being told — went a little something like this: Since a long, long, long time ago, there’s been one Creature of Darkness and one Creature of Light running around the world. They look like us normal humans but differ in three important ways: They bleed blue blood, they have magical powers (telepathy, healing, transporting people they touch to a shameful moment in their past, etc.), and really want to kill each another. When one of them does, the dead CoL or CoD “passes down” their “light” or “darkness” to a male blood heir. That male gets hit with a kind of Quickening, but isn’t quite sure what that means, so he has to spend the next however-many-years coming to terms with What He Is. During that time period, when there’s only one CoWhatever running around, the world kind of echoes it. If a CoD’s alone, the world gets hit with floods, wars, pestilence, plagues. A lone-CoL world includes scientific breakthroughs, the Renaissance, maybe a new Tom Waits album, things like that. Also, and this is important so you’re going to want to pay attention, eventually one of the CoDs will magically become “the Usher.” This is short for “Usher of Destruction” and they’re, like, the end of the line. After they die, they pass along their “darkness” to one remaining heir, this time a lady, who is “the Omega.” And she brings with her the apocalypse.

Oh, and also there’s that aforementioned carnival led by that short fella from “Twin Peaks.” And a Californian priest becoming an up-and-comer in the newfangled radio-preaching scene. And Adrienne Barbeau dancing very sexily with a snake.

Every problem and piece of greatness the show ever had is encapsulated there. All that stuff about the CoDs and the CoLs and Omegas and Ushers and magic? That was never really in the show itself. At least, it wasn’t spelled out like that. In order to get to that story, the basic structure of what the fuck was going on in the show, you needed to stick with it through the entire 24-episode run while analyzing every interview snippet with creator Daniel Knauf and participating in message board chats with fellow fans. Which, frankly, is a lot to ask of most TV viewers. But it’s perfect for lonely recent-transplants to new cities who are already pre-disposed to become obsessed with weird intricate mythological puzzles! Which is how I found myself on the “Carnivàle” message boards .

After the Sunday night airings, I’d sign onto the board to read theories by other “rousties” — that’s what we called ourselves; short for “roustabouts,” carnie-lingo for the carnival’s grunt-workers — of just what was happening. Sure, there were spelled-out love triangles, power struggles, incestual dalliances, but that was all sideshow, so to speak. To understand the general mythos, we’d scan every “characters having a vision” montage (usually, one happened right around the 45-minute mark every week) for clues. Promos weren’t promos, they were Zapruder films to be analyzed frame-by-frame. Dialogue was dissected line by line. When Samson says “Trinity” in the ever-cryptic season one intro, he’s totally talking about the site of the first nuclear test, right? Was that a frame of Brother Justin in that Rape of Apollonia scene? What do Freemasons have to do with any of this anyway? This was before “Lost,” mind you, where looking for hidden clues in backgrounds became common practice. But whereas the fun stuff in that show often turned out to be nothing more than Easter Eggs the creators put in for eagle-eyed viewers, the clues in “Carnivàle” were telling the story itself.

“Carnivàle” came at a unique period in TV history, specifically HBO’s. Following the success of “The Sopranos,” HBO’s head Chris Albrecht was pretty much taking any strong personality with a script set in a unique world and giving them a blank check. Sometimes, they found a CoL (David Milch’s “Deadwood,” David Simon’s “The Wire”; maybe they should’ve just stuck with Davids?). But mostly it was CoDs (“The Mind of the Married Man,” Steven Soderbergh’s “K Street,” “The Comeback”). “Carnivàle” was somewhere in between. It was adored by critics — taking home plenty of Emmys, mostly for design-related elements — but people being paid to watch television are not target demographics. Folks looking for a bit of escapism on Sunday nights are.

In later interviews, Knauf explained the entire series was meant to unfold over six seasons, with each two seasons forming a kind of stand-alone “book.” David Simon did something like this with “The Wire,” but kept one “book” contained to a single season. The difference is massive. You know how it took the first half of each season of “The Wire” before you adjusted to the world and started getting sucked into the storyline? Now imagine if that lingering sensation of “is this going anywhere?” was stretched out to 10 episodes, and picture it during a time before Netflix streaming or HBOGo, and it starts to make sense why viewers abandoned ship. From the outset, this was a show destined to lose confused audience members after every credits-roll rather than pick them up; if obsessed viewers still didn’t know what was going on, casual viewers tuning in halfway through didn’t stand a chance. But Knauf’s two-season-equals one-book methodology gave HBO an out.

“We feel the two seasons we had on the air told the story very well,” said HBO’s President of Entertainment Carolyn Strauss after the official cancellation notice. While season two’s finale still left many, many unanswered questions, HBO could take comfort in the fact that most of the arcs that had been developing were paid off enough. They could can the show and, if fans squinted just right, they’d be satisfied. (Ironically, this tactic actually worked later with “Deadwood”; sure it’d be nice to have a fourth season, but the ending of season three works perfectly fine.) For a barely-viewed albatross — it was rumored to cost $2 million an episode — it was an easy way for the network to save face without admitting they’d made the mistake of putting it on the air in the first place.

But the rousties wouldn’t go quietly. Along with the other message board fanatics, I took part in every bit of electronic petitioning that was available at the time. I flooded HBO with emails from Hotmail. I urged others to watch it via MySpace. I bought copies of the DVDs (used) to send to friends. If a drunken late-night memory is to be believed, I even emailed Knauf himself to ask more what I could do to bring about the conclusion of his vision. More rabid fans took the task a bit further, classy ones sending old -ashioned 1000-character-long telegrams to HBO for $14.95 a pop, less-classy ones defaming Albrecht all over the Internet. (Urban Dictionary still defines “Chris Albrecht” as the “Evil little man who ran HBO programming to the ground. The moron who was responsible for canceling Carnivale and other wonderful original series on HBO.”) And silly us, we thought these tactics would actually work.

Rumors started popping up about a possible resurrection. Knauf talked about turning the rest of the series into a graphic novel, or maybe an actual book. A three-hour wrap-up film was discussed (HBO later used a variety of this bullshit to satiate angry fans after the cancellation of “Deadwood”). In 2007, Knauf auctioned off the show’s official and original “Pitch Document” in, perhaps, an attempt to pass down the mythology to a new DIY bloodline of filmmakers. But since late at night on March 27th of 2005, with Ben mending his wounds in Management’s trailer, and Sofie healing Brother Justin to become the Omega, there hasn’t been one more line written in the story.

Now: Think back on your first heartbreak.

The first days/weeks/months after, depending on the severity, is a bit like those first few days after riding out a bad earthquake. (For non-fault-line adjacent readers, think: a particularly bumpy airplane ride.) Every step taken is hesitant, every motion accompanied with an elbow prepared to catch your fall. Yes, you slowly regain your composure. You learn to trust again, but only to a certain extent. You make changes in your life. Barriers are put up; you know the ground could move again.

Thusly, my lesson from the show’s cancellation was to never trust TV.

Following the cancellation of “Carnivàle,” I have yet to watch a show while it’s actually airing. I wait them out. I allow critics and audiences to vet them for me, multiple seasons into the show’s run, before giving them a chance at all. There’s no more feeling of discovery, of investing on the ground floor, of being there since day one, of seeing a show stumble first before finding its way. I’m useless at water-cooler conversation unless it involves sports, politics, religion, or genital-based jokes. My DVR is a wasteland. Unseen episodes would eat up the storage before I got around to believing the show is worth spending time with, that it will be around long enough for the show-runners to write a satisfying ending, that the network isn’t going to ultimately break my heart.

Previously in series: You, Me And “Star Trek: The Next Generation”

Rick Paulas is a Prophet trying to be an Avatar.