Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews the first episode of Carnivàle Season 1 — “Milfay”
In the same year that spawned the re-imagining of Battlstar Galactica, and a year prior to the pilot of LOST, another epic tale of Darkness vs Light hit HBO, though has undeservedly not spawned as big a legacy. That series is Carnivàle and it all began in an episode called “Milfay”.
The title gives away the setting but it’s the opening credits, a series of videos and images depicting various moments of depression-era history contained within a pack of tarot cards, which really sets up the idea that the story is going to be about much more than just carnival folk. Rather than dive straight into the story the audience is greeted to the weird and wonderful word of Carnivale with a monologue from the main character Samson (played by Michael J Anderson, better known as the Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks) that sets up the story;
“Before the beginning, after the great war between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth, and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called man. And to each generation there was born a creature of light, and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then, nobility, and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was. Until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man traded away wonder for reason.”
It could almost have been a narration for the opening credits and really gives some context as to what the show is all about. Anderson’s delivery is perfect and with each word the series begins to weave its magic. His presence alone is enough to signal that this might be something in a similar vein to Twin Peaks and the first episode makes it clear that in terms of its themes, ambiance and the quality of its storytelling, it’s certainly one of the rare TV shows that could be compared to David Lynch’s classic series.
Set in 1934 during a time of financial hardships, especially for Dustbowl America which forms the show’s back drop, Carnivàle centres around the lives of those who work the travelling carnival. Some of them have real magic powers, some of them are just freaks, but all of them are intriguing and compelling characters that draw the audience into their world. In this first episode, not only are we introduced to Ben Hawkins, who has a shady past and whose mother has recently passed away, and Brother Justin, the preacher who has a mysterious link with Ben, but the likes of Samson, Jonesy, Lodz, Lila and Sofie, all of whom seem like they’ve got something to hide.
Two plotlines are established, the main one being the discovery of Ben Hawkins by the travelling Carnival and the rediscovery of his powers, and the preacher Brother Justin who equally seems to possess some hidden ability which becomes apparent to him around the same time. Ben is found by the carnival burying his mother while being harassed by someone trying to demolish his home. The carnies step in to lend a hand and Ben is invited to join them, with Samson indicating that he was expected by the Carnival’s mysterious “management”.
All the characters are brought to life by an incredible cast, but the two actors who really stand out in ‘Milfay’ are Michael J Anderson as Samson and Clancy Brown as Brother Justin in his pre-Kelvin Inman days. While Anderson’s contributions to Twin Peaks were considerable, it’s fair to say he never really got to stretch his acting muscles as the backwards speaking Man From Another Place. In this series however he delivers a really impressive performance as the boss of the carnival, with the audience never quite sure what his intentions are. Although he may be short there’s no doubt about who the boss is, exerting his power with a cagey attitude and some well written patter.
Then there’s Brown’s Brother Justin, the preacher who like Ben Hawkins is only starting to discover, or re-discover, his magical powers. Delivering an instantly memorable performance Brown switches between being charming and downright creepy incredibly well and the evil preacher couldn’t have been cast better. While the fact that he’s a preacher leads the audience to doubt whether he’s bad or good, there seems little question that he’s set up as a counterpart to Ben’s character. There are a number of stunning moments where his powers start to be revealed, like the woman who stole from the collection plate vomiting coins and the vision where it starts snowing and his face starts bleeding.
As well cast as it is, it’s not just the actors which make the show, and like the woods of Twin Peaks and the Island in LOST, the setting, the inhospitable desert setting and the carnival itself, is painted as one of the main characters. It’s not a million miles from the way the desert was used in Western films; a period of American history not that far from the period Carnivàle is set in, where it was biblical in its proportions and created a sense of alienation, helping to make the action feel detached from the real world. The special effects are worthy of mention as well and though the writing and the acting are spot on, the perfectly executed effects really help to add another layer of realism to the proceedings and are certainly above average for a serialized TV series.
‘Milfay’ delivers many moments that stick in the mind but it’s the end of the episode that leaves the most enduring image from the first instalment of the series. However, there are many great scenes along the way that hint at what’s to come including the woman Ben manages separate from her deceased baby when he’s walking along the railroad tracks, suggesting that it’s not only the physically sick he can heal, and the moment Lodz decides to read Ben’s dream as a joke between him and Lila but glimpses his dark and disturbing visions alerting the blind mentalist that there’s more to him than meets the eye.
In terms of the writing the premise is solid, the dialogue perfect, and though the show moves at it’s own relaxed pace, it never gets boring. Biblical allusions are used to great effect in this first glimpse into the world of Samson and his co-workers, and though we’ve yet to see the full extent of their powers it appears the roles that Ben and Brother Justin take on are reversed. In this tale of good and evil the preacher is the evil presence and the outlaw is the saviour. While the show wears the idea of magic and its use of Christian symbols (not to mention the masonic imagery as well) on its sleeve, this isn’t a bad thing as the dark undertones and unusual setting help to transform into something excitingly original. The episode ends with Ben healing the lame girl who watched the circus rolling into town, establishing him as a kind of Jesus Christ figure, indicating that it’s only matter of time before we meet the equivalent to the devil.
It may not be one for fans of lots of fast action but for anyone interested in dark and complex characters, a story of epic proportions and a unique setting, as well as a unique atmosphere, ‘Milfay’ delivers on all counts and promises more to follow.
9/10 Seriable Stars