Paint-By-Numbers Cult Television

I Come Not To Praise Carnivàle, But To Bury It

Another cult television show has come and gone, victim of the very density, grinding pace and ambition that endeared it to its hardcore fan base. “Carnivàle’s” epic, Manichean tale of a pan-generational secret war between Creatures of Light and Creatures of Darkness has come to a close after a mere two of its originally intended six seasons, capped off by a maddening cliffhanger ending.

For television viewers of a certain generation, this feeling was all too familiar. We went through this at least once before, as devotees of another martyred prime-time culty supernatural drama — “Twin Peaks.” And if there is a good reference point from which to discuss the legacy, and ultimate failings, of “Carnivàle,” the show that arguably paved the way for its audacious brand of television.

Superficial parallels between the two shows abound. Both glacially-paced tales centered on traditional battles between the forces of Good vs. Evil, imbued with their own unique mythologies and often fuzzy interior logic, and heavily larded with peripheral, low-grade soap-opera subplots ostensibly for the less supernaturally-inclined mass audience to focus on. Both appeared bold and distinctive next to its contemporaries, if only in their willingness to make extraordinary demands on the patience and credulity of their viewers. And it is this common propensity to take risks with the audience’s attention span that spelled both shows’ doom.

“Twin Peaks” and “Carnivàle” both achieved early ratings success, buoyed by heavy promotion from their respective networks and heralded by critics. The critical buzz, and the novelty factor that worked on the mass audience unaccustomed to quirky of challenging programming, carried both through solid first seasons. As time wore on, however, both shows required more and more investment from their viewers, while providing fewer payoffs than serialized television audiences are accustomed to. Thus the ranks of casual fans, increasingly frustrated, incredulous, and burdened by the large and growing amount of information required for basic comprehension of the show’s events, gave up and walked away. Each show’s fan base quickly eroded to a hard, compulsive core; passionate and dedicated, but insufficient to meet their Networks’ economic demands, leading to their uncannily similar terminations.

All of these superficial similarities aside, it is in the content of the shows that the telling differences appear, specifically in the different ways the they constituted themselves out of established narrative conventions.

“Twin Peaks” was understood from the outset as an organic extension of its auteur David Lynch’s critically validated artistic vision, an authentic product of his unique perspective. Critics readily conceded that adapting this vision to the small screen would inevitably require some adulteration or dilution, giving Lynch some latitude to indulge in at worst, or utilize at best, pre-existing conventions of the medium. The show did make liberal use this latitude, readily employing plotlines and stock characters familiar to any modern television consumer — the squeaky-clean FBI Man, the Prom Queen Fallen From Grace, et cetera. To the show’s credit, the majority of these tropes were clearly invoked in the service of Lynch’s artistic explorations, to be subverted, exposed, or otherwise manipulated.

The most obvious example is the manner in which Lynch used the show’s familiar detective story motif to interrogate what was commonly supposed to be its true subject matter, the brutality and perversity that lies beneath the surface of bourgeois small-town America (and by extension, for the more politically inclined, the system that creates and nourishes the ex-urban middle class.) Lynch famously said during the show’s run that given his druthers, he would never have revealed Laura Palmer’s killer; suggesting that the real work of “Twin Peaks” was not a murder case; it was the revelation of the rottenness and objective Evil permeating the town. The resolution of the murder, if it came at all, would be a means rather than an end. And when it did come (in the second season, reportedly due to network pressure), it ultimately proved to be a means to expand the scope of the narrative beyond this single murder and toward a general confrontation of Evil.

“Twin Peaks” certainly made use of clichés that were indefensible even under Lynch’s broad artistic license. Even with elements that could be rightfully derided as filler aimed at expanding the show’s appeal, it was easy to forgive due to the nearly 1:1 ratio of elements that were totally unfamiliar, and sometimes downright bizarre. For every tired standard-issue daytime television specimen like Shelley Johnson (the Gorgeous Battered Wife) or Bobby Briggs (Hot-Tempered Bad-Boy Lover), there was a Log Lady or Nadine “the one-eyed lady obsessed with drape runners“ Hurley. Even if these characters were just stylistic padding, they mostly succeeded in balancing the show’s more cloying soapy elements. Which is another way to say that every second they took away from the James and Donna romance was a good one.

“Carnivàle” drew on a drastically different field of references, and sadly did not put them to nearly as good use. A brief refresher: to each generation is born a Creature of Darkness and a Creature of Light (hello, Buffy), who, as one might expect, battle. At stakes in this particular generation is the end of the Age of Magic (hello, Tolkien), which will come about when man triggers the first nuclear explosion at Trinity. This event would not take place for another eleven years from the show’s starting point. The show’s early ending seems to preclude us from ever finding out why, and whether actual history was prima facie evidence that the good guys lost.

Our Creature of Darkness is Brother Justin, an evangelical Methodist preacher with an active interest in politics (odds that creator Daniel Knauf is a Democrat?). A rapid sequence of visions and events causes him to awaken to his dark nature, and he instinctually begins to call followers — through a syndicated radio program (again with the Republican-bashing) — to mass in the west (clearly to make some kind of Stand.) As these events unfold Brother Justin demonstrates his terrifying power: to rip from every other major Antichrist figure in contemporary fiction. Most readily apparent in the mix are Omen’s Damien Thorn (yes, he can only be killed by one specific knife), Left Behind’s Nicolae Carpathia, and contemporary Protestant interpretations of the Beast of Revelations as an apostate representative of organized Christianity. (His Holiness Pope Benedict must be thrilled that the Pontiff was spared the mantle of Satan in at least one popular work of religious fiction.)

In the Light corner, wearing the constantly dirty trunks, is Ben Hawkins. Ben is a simple, impoverished Okie scooped up by the Carnivàle while he tried to bury his mother and stop his home from being bulldozed by The Man. Repeated demonstrations of his healing powers and allusions to the Gospels over the course of the show too numerous to recount make it clear to us that young Mr. Hawkins is some kind of Christ figure, more specifically the kind re-imagined in contemporary culture. The emphasis placed on his human weaknesses and his struggle with the burden of his elevated nature and its attendant responsibility recalls The Last Temptation of Christ. A the same time, other aspects — his sense of conviction without an express or implied legalistic morality, his evangelism through action and tendency not to preach, his affinity for a ragtag bunch of freaks and rejects and whores — suggest an agreeable, non-judgmental, grassroots Jesus familiar in the works of modern theologians, or more visibly in the musical theater classic Godspell.

During the course of the show we meet the previous generation’s Creatures of Light and Darkness, who prove to be the fathers of Brother Justin and Ben respectively (it’s hereditary, and Dark creatures don’t always give birth to Light babies and vice versa.) We see how their story intersected with key events in history — a clash during World War I, the implication that Ben’s father, the Creature of Darkness, somehow triggered the Dust Bowl in a huge outburst of Evil, and of course the implied link of the current generation to the Nuclear Age. We learn that there is a secret network of individuals working both sides of the conflict, even secret societies (predictably, the Masons) with an active historical role. Upon learning all this, we remember every Illuminati book we ever read and sigh.

In short the show’s plot, characters and its underlying mythology are a patchwork of readily recognizable tropes and devices pilfered from a wide array of sources in contemporary fantasy, science, and religious fiction. The only insight that this configuration of narrative clip art appears to offer us an equally familiar comment about outward piety masking an intrinsically evil will to power, and true virtue lying in humility and in the human conscience. But really, is that what we sat through twenty-four episodes ’ and would have sat through forty-eight more — to learn? You can’t judge a book by its cover?

Daniel Knauf, the show’s creator, has repeatedly insisted (and truly seems to believe) that “Carnivàle” was really more a character piece, about the internal battle within each elevated Creature between their humanity and their grand destiny, and in which those caught up in their exterior battle struggle both with its effects and their own consciences. But the final product gave far more weight to the grand narrative than to the interior life of its characters. The plot was not driven by the motivations of decisions of individual characters; rather the inevitable progress toward the precisely foretold confrontation between Ben and Brother Justin swept all the characters along, despite frequent outbreaks of actorly grimacing apparently meant to suggest discomfort or uncertainty with the direction in which events took them. At no point did any of the actors’ grimacing, furrowing of eyebrows, or deep staring off into the distance ever seriously threaten the finish we’d been promised. On the few rare occasions when it seems like a character’s choice might actually impact the plot — such as when Justin’s paralyzed former mentor Reverend Balthus recovers enough to attempt an assassination — nothing comes of it; we are reverted to the preordained status quo. The scenarios in which specific characters which do influence the grand narrative — Sofie’s miraculous success in finding employment in the Brother Justin household, her subsequent manifestation as a Creature of Darkness, and her final act of saving Brother Justin after the not-so-final confrontation — ring false as exercises in character, and seem far more likely to be the demands of the plot intentionally asserting themselves.

Considering the show’s promiscuity of influence, its failure to reconfigure its appropriated elements in a way that yields anything particularly new or interesting, and its deficiencies in depicting or commenting on humanity, it is difficult to identify a legacy for it beyond that of a failed commercial product. Perhaps it was merely a cynical attempt to capitalize on the popularity of eschatological fiction. Perhaps it was positioning itself as a ready-made cult classic, hoping to capture and sustain itself off the obsessive energy and long memory of the sci-fi/fantasy audience. Either way, it failed its commercial objective just as readily as it did its artistic intentions, and it will have to live on now only in overpriced DVD sets, fan fiction, and in the memories of another jilted generation of viewers.