Synopsis: Ben joins the carnival and learns how to get his freak on.
Review: Carnivale is full of religious symbolism, but because of the pseudo-Christian nature of those symbols, the supernatural elements are really just props that contribute the series' unique tone (see note on Spiritual Content below). But making a profound statement about Christianity is not the purpose of the series. The purpose of Carnivale is to make a profound statement about extreme poverty and destitution and what that does to people. The series successfully portrays Depression-era poverty and destitution as well as the grimy conditions of the Dust Bowl.
After the pseudo-Christian opening monologue, it cuts to, as the subtitles indicate, Oklahoma in 1934. The first season's main protagonist, a young man named Ben, watches his mother die in a dilapidated farm house surrounded by fields that have turned to dust. He begins digging her grave, dust swirling in the air so thick he can hardly see. The bank recently foreclosed on the farm. As he buries his mom, he watches the bank bulldoze his home. Losing everything, he is taken in by a traveling Carnival. Later in the episode, Ben comes across a couple living in a tent beside the railroad tracks. The mother clings to a dead baby claiming it is only sleeping. The father laments the baby has been dead several days and deserves a proper burial. Ben talks the mother into handing over the baby. The father breaks down into tears as he holds his dead child.
Writer and series creator Daniel Knauf does not allow these events to pass without intentional social commentary. When Ben discovers that one of the carnies is a prostitute, the carnival's dwarf co-manager, Samson, tells him she's not doing anything the bank didn't do to him. The not-so-subtle message is that by foreclosing on his farm, the bank screwed Ben. Samson admonishes "you think on that" as much to Ben as to the audience. Knauf is practically shouting that a major cause of the Great Depression was the greed of the rich and in so doing asking the audience to evaluate the injustices against the poor in our own day and time.
The tone of Carnivale is like Big Fish but grittier. The sets and actors are smudged with dirt. It is not devoid of hope though: Samson tells Ben he's offering him the opportunity of a lifetime--a career in show business. Ben asks how much it pays, and Samson honestly answers, "Nothing at first." This was the type of optimism that characterized America at this time. Conditions may have been horrible, but there was still the dream of fame and fortune. The series has a huge ensemble cast, many played by big name actors who usually play in movies. This combined with the meticulously researched, historically accurate sets resulted in a high production cost for HBO.
The pilot had some rough edges that could have been more polished. Knauf was still working out the complex mythology behind the show. It was a typical supernatural thriller that did not offer anything new to the genre. The social commentary was a little preachy and could have been made more subtle. That said, "Milfay" was successful at pulling you into the mythology of the series and making you feel emotionally connected to the characters meriting a rating of 6 out of 10 for this first installment of the series.
Objectionable Content: Surprisingly for a series produced by HBO, I only remember one obscenity in the entire episode.
There is an attempted rape, but there is no nudity in that scene. Ben wanders into a striptease tent at the carnival, and a woman's bare breasts are visible. While the producers gave a historical justification for this scene, some viewers will still find it offensive. The scene was not originally in the episode. As the producers were researching 1930's carnivals, they discovered that such striptease shows were frequently a part of carnivals in the 1930s and decided to add it.
Spiritual Content: As a critic who specializes in television's portrayal of religion, Carnivale with its rich mythology colored with Christian symbols and other religious elements is a gold mine to review. The series opens with an extreme close-up of an actor talking directly to the camera. At first his monologue sounds very Christian:
(1) There was a great war between heaven and hell. Maybe not entirely biblical, but it seems he is referring to the Christian tradition that Lucifer rebelled against God after which hell was created. (2) God created the earth and gave dominion of it over to man. Nothing here a Christian would disagree with. (3) To each generation is born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. Now we have clearly veered off the path of Christian orthodoxy. (4) Then one day man forever traded wonder for reason. The implication here seems to be that religion and reason are in opposition (notice the series does not take reason's side). The many great Christian philosophers and scholars since the Enlightenment should be enough to show that Christianity is indeed reasonable.
The series has a pseudo-Christian mythology. By the definition of Christianity ("I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:16, ESV), anything that is almost-Christian, kinda-Christian, or pseudo-Christian is really not-Christian. The pseudo-Christianness of the series turns the Christian symbolism into no more than a vague sense of "the supernatural." The series does not lack in supernatural: visions, dream reading, tarot cards, fortune telling, telepathy, telekinesis, healing, and resurrection (and that's just the first episode!).
The second main story line of the first season centers on a Methodist pastor in California. When a television episode includes a church service, it is usually a Catholic service. I don't know but maybe television producers think Catholic church buildings are more recognizable as "church" on the screen. Here we actually get a Protestant church service, but the pastor is wearing ministerial garb. Again, maybe producers think it makes the pastor more recognizable on the screen, but I personally have never attended a church where the pastor wears ministerial garments. Many Methodist ministers do wear vestments but not all do.
Justin Crowe preaches what appears to be his entire sermon on screen. There is an open Bible on the pulpit, but he never reads a single verse the entire sermon. No Scripture seems to be a characteristic of "movie sermons." What does Knauf think the open Bible was for? A destitute women is caught stealing from the offering plate. When Justin confronts her, he tells her, "We all, each of us, carry within us the seeds of our own salvation and our own damnation." This simply isn't true. Jesus is the source of our salvation. The women throws up coins as if demon possessed.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (Reviewed by: Matthew Miller)