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by lauren boisvert 2 years ago in tv

Carnivale began my love of side-show carnivals; here we discuss its innovation and out-of-time-ness

Carnivale is a show that takes me in its old, gnarled hands and shakes me down to my core. It always has, and it always will, no matter how many times I watch it. Carnivale did great things, but it could’ve done much more if it had been allowed to continue, if it had gotten the ratings it needed for HBO to let it live.

But why is Carnivale so good? I believe it comes from its roots, its backbone, its writing. I believe that every aspiring writer should watch Carnivale, especially if you’re writing a good-versus-evil narrative. Study this show, learn how it uses theme, symbolism, imagery, subtext, and translate that to your own work. There’s a lot to learn from this show, whether you’re writing for television or not.


Carnivale follows the exploits of a traveling carnival in 1930s western and middle America. They pick up a mysterious guy named Ben Hawkins, who can heal with a touch. Ben embarks on his own personal journey, using the carnival as a means to get where he needs to go. But things are more interconnected than they seem at first, and the fate of the carnival is tied to the fate of Ben Hawkins.

Why it Worked

Carnivale is a show out of time. The settings and storylines are so rich and weaving that it takes you to another place entirely, more so than your average television show. I’d put it on par with Westworld in terms of thematic elements, cyclical storytelling, and lush narratives. Westworld has its problems, but it’s a profound piece of storytelling, as is Carnivale.

Carnivale hits you over the head with its images and symbolism, but in a way that doesn’t make it too obvious, like being smacked in the back of the head with an inflatable bat. Everything is important, and nothing is important; it’s a show about mysticism, religion, and the cross-section between the two. Mostly, it’s a show about everyday magic and the people who wield it, set in a landscape so blanched that they become the little spot of hope for everyone else.

Why It Deserved Better

It doesn’t seem right to use the word innovative to describe something that portrayed the 1930s, but I believe Carnivale did things that I’ve never seen before in television. The best word I have to describe it is rich; the narrative is so rich in symbolism and subtext, and the characters are so rich and varied, which you need if your primary subject is a side-show carnival.

Carnival deserved to tell its entire story. There are too many things left unsaid and unexplored to just leave it with two seasons and an ambiguous ending. Showrunner and producer Daniel Knauf explained the ending and where they wanted to go with Carnivale, but for me a summary is not the same as seeing it with my own eyes. Sure, I can imagine, I have a brain after all, but I would’ve liked to see it made a reality and concluded on its own terms. But, essentially, if you don’t have the viewers you don’t have the viewers, and you have to cut the dead weight as a production company.

So, I get why Carnivale was canceled; it was ahead of its time for 2003, people were busy watching NCIS, and One Tree Hill, and The O.C. They didn’t have time for subtext and lore and mythology. There’s a lot to unpack in Carnivale, and some people want something easy to watch that doesn’t involve flow charts and PowerPoints; I respect that. I watched NCIS, too. But Carnivale feels like something more than television: it’s a reckoning, a prophecy, and an exploration of humanity in its basest forms.

Reasons to Watch

I can’t think of anything comparable to Carnivale in my opinion; maybe American Gods, though I’m due for a reread of the book. Overall, I recommend Carnivale if you’re a fan of sprawling narratives and deep lore and mythology. If you want something to ponder long after it’s over, if you want your brain to work for that sweet, sweet reward, and if you like the concept of 1930s side-shows, definitely watch Carnivale.


About the author

lauren boisvert

poet, writer, messy bitch who lives for drama

tweets @calamity_zelda

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