I'm a 'Carnivale' Freak

It's weirder than The PNE on acid.

By Steve Burgess 30 Aug 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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It's PNE time again -- corn dogs and root beer and riding the Zipper and root beer and corn dogs full circle with no refund.

A little tip to get yourself in the mood -- head down to the local DVD emporium and pick up the first episodes of HBO's Carnivale. You won't find Bugs and Tweety and the Loony Tunes Hollywood House of Fun, or the Superdogs, or Nearly Neil. This is the kind of carnival with freaks and bearded ladies and cooch dancers, the amazing Turtle Boy and a man eating chicken -- an old-time traveling show with a whole lot of that old-time religion, a supernatural tale set on the bleak terrain of dust-bowl America. It's worth the price of admission.

Carnivale is available in Canada on Movie Central, where two seasons have completed. But the wonders of DVD allow you to start at the start with season one. The tale begins with a lad named Hawkins burying his mother on the barren Oklahoma plain. A passing carnival scoops him up, apparently one step ahead of the law.

Human resources

The carnival staff list would make for some memorable Wal-Mart greeters. There's a catatonic psychic, a mind reader, Siamese twin dancers, a human reptile, and various others supervised by a midget strongman named Samson (Michael J. Anderson) who serves as the right-hand man for a mysterious, unseen figure known only as Management. These carnies are not above the usual frauds and scams, but most of the featured attractions here really do boast unnatural abilities. In this magical world, the supernatural is not just a sleight-of-hand trick.

But even in this crew, it quickly becomes evident that Hawkins is a young man with special powers. Management has picked him up for a reason. Hawkins struggles to understand the life-giving force he possesses, all the while haunted by shadowy images of a First World War trench and a former carnival magician who may be his father.

Meanwhile in a nearby town, a fire-and-brimstone preacher named Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) is having strange dreams-dreams in which he and Hawkins appear together. Hawkins is having the same dreams. They do not know each other yet, but their destinies are linked.


It's a complicated tale, and not everybody fell for it. After a string of critical successes like the Sopranos and Six Feet Under, Carnivale was the first new HBO series to get a lukewarm response from critics when it arrived.

Carnivale may remind some of Twin Peaks (which also featured Anderson, as the dancing dwarf). While it shares the magical realism of David Lynch's influential series, Carnivale's Depression-era setting gives it an earthier feel. Occasionally a touch heavy with its Biblical brimstone-slinging, Carnivale nonetheless succeeds in creating a world that is both gritty and fantastic. The denizens of Carnivale's painted trailers are involved in a head-spinning array of subplots, all wheeling around the central tale of two monumental figures moving inexorably toward an old-fashioned, good vs. evil showdown.

Like Twin Peaks, Carnivale either catches you in its spell or it doesn't. It works for me. Grab yourself a corn dog and enjoy.

Steve Burgess investigates the normal and paranormal for The Tyee through his DVD player.  [Tyee]

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