Standout episodes: "Babylon;" "The River"
In the conversation about the great television dramas of the early aughts, Carnivále is the one series that gets lost in the shuffle. The show was an underdog from the beginning. David Knauf, the show’s creator, was an insurance salesman prior to Carnivále, and the script lived as a loose 180-page feature script before he reshaped it for television.
The series both benefits and suffers from a passionate but unschooled hand at the helm. The rich mythology underpinning the show came from a type of dedication (or perhaps obsession) that you don’t see from someone developing numerous projects. And the scope of the series is clearly influenced by someone who doesn’t care about production constraints. At the same time, the show feels reductive at times, relying on easy, predictable good-versus-evil binaries that aren’t nearly as complex as its peers plots, like Deadwood's.
Despite the show’s shortcomings, the early episodes of Carnivále stand out for two reasons: They're weird, and they have heart. Daniel Knauf was inspired to write the show by the experiences of his disabled father, and this influence shines through in the compassion he shows towards his characters. This empathy contrasts nicely with an unclear mythology that balances Dust Bowl demagoguery with tarot-inspired mysticism to create a world where even its creator didn’t know the rules. —Brenden