Carnivale (Pilot)

The pilot opens with escaped convict Ben Hawkins, sitting with his dying mother in their home, as a dust storm rages outside, and bulldozers wait to tear down the house which has been repossessed by the bank. The storm winds down, and Ben begins to dig his mother’s grave while the construction workers try and force him to move out of their way. The situation is saved by Jones, a former baseball player who now travels with the carnival whose caravan is parked nearby. The carnies get together an impromptu funeral for Ben’s mom, and this provides us with a meet and greet for our characters.

There are Siamese twins, a bearded lady, a retarded strong man, gypsies, snake charmers, a blind seer and a lizard man, complete with tail. As the funeral ends, the bulldozers crush Ben’s home and the carnival decides to take Ben in, just for a few stops.

Cut to a church, where Brother Justin Crowe demonstrates unusual powers in dealing with a member of his flock who steals from the collection plate.

Back to the carnival, where Jones and Samson, the day to day managers of the circus, have a brief conversation about the real “Manager” of Carnivale. This mysterious Management is never seen, and no one but Samson and Jones are allowed into his trailer, but when told of Ben’s arrival and asked how the cash poor carnival is going to feed this extra mouth, the Management only replies, “he was expected”.

Ben is sharing a trailer with blind Lodz and bearded lady Lila. Ben is asleep and clearly dreaming. Lila begs Lodz to read Ben’s dream, and he can and does, seeing a WWI battlefield and someone who Lodz recognizes. Lodz panics and runs to Samson, begging him to speak to Management about what he saw in Ben’s dream. He’s told that if Management wants to know something, Management will ask.

We move to beautiful Sophie the gypsy’s trailer, where she is having a conversation with her mother. All is well and good, except her mother is in a coma. We get more scenes of the carnival oddities, and we get to see Ben absolutely freak out as he realizes that this is one very strange traveling circus. Ben wanders away from the carnival to get a little peace, and ends up at a nearby hobo camp. Poor Ben, there’s no peace there for him, only more tragedy.

As Ben keeps walking and wanders into town, so does Sophie. She stops at a gas station to get a soda, and ends up getting attacked. Of course, Ben saves her. They return to camp and there Ben works with the carnies to set up for the night’s show. We meet more of the carnies, and get to see their acts as Ben wanders through the show at night. Sophie’s attackers show up to get revenge, but Ben is bailed out by Jones and Gabriel, the strong man. All this further cements Ben to the Carnivale.

We then get another scene of Brother Justin, who has an epiphany when strolling through Chinatown. Methinks Brother Justin may become very interesting to Management as the show goes on. Or, will it be the other way aroundr Will the powers of the Carnivale’s freaks attract Brother Justinr

The final scene shows the carnival packing up and moving on. Sophie reads Ben’s tarot and he has a disturbing flashback. He runs away in terror as we finally understand why Management is interested in Ben. If the Carnivale is a gathering of people with true powers, then Ben certainly belongs there.

As a pilot, this sets things up very well. While I feel Sophie’s attack was very contrived, and that Ben perhaps has a few too many tragedies piled on him for one day, as a whole this sets up the course of the show nicely, while leaving many, many questions to be answered in future episodes. The premise is so unusual, and has the potential to be truly creepy. The weakest element is the dialogue, which is merely purposeful and plain, although, with a plot this baroque, simplicity is probably the best way to go. I’m looking forward to this show, and can’t wait to see how the plot elements entwine in future episodes. While I don’t see this as being a water cooler show, or a huge ratings success, I do envision this as having a strong and loyal cult following which hopefully will be what HBO expected when it green lighted a show about a dust bowl carnival full of freaks with superpowers.

Rating: B