Carnivàle as a case of bad timing

21 May 2011 at 11:58 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

My husband’s been diligently watching the now defunct HBO series, Carnivàle, for several months now, and while initially a bit skeptical I’ve gradually grown fond of the show.

The series (which lasted a mere two seasons) traces two parallel stories: one about a traveling troupe of carnival workers (the most prominently featured include a tarot reader played by Clea Duvall, a worker with mystical healing powers played by Nick Stahl, and a cootch dancer played by Carla Gallo) and an evangelical minister named Brother Justin (Clancy Brown). Over the course of the series, these seemingly disparate story lines converge. We learn that Ben must confront the minister who, despite his popular image as a pious preacher, contains a deep-ceded evil (see promos for both seasons below).

I am late in coming to the Carnivàle bandwagon. I remember that while in grad school, I attended a panel at the first-ever Flow Conference featuring two organizers from the Save Carnivàle movement. These passionate fans petitioned against HBO’s decision in 2005 to cancel the show and continue to do so. Six years later, I’m beginning to understand their point.

But part of the reason I am enjoying the show has to do with its relevance to the current recessionary economy. The touring members of Carnivàle struggle to persist in an America hobbled by the Great Depression. Their impoverished audiences take in these amusements to distract themselves from the destitution of the everyday. Meanwhile, Brother Justin’s followers suffer from the same need for diversion, seeking a divine explanation for their troubles. In the series’ last episode, when the co-manager of Carnivàle, Samson (Michael J Anderson), and Brother Justin meet, Samson points out the similarities between what they do: both are performers stirring their despairing audience’s emotions, though to different ends and in different ways.

But while Carnivàle must move from city-to-city as a slow-moving caravan, the minister harnesses the power of radio to disseminate his populist message. Brother Justin’s fiery sermons combine theology and politics to tap into the fears of the era. Here’s a clip featuring one of these speeches:

The scene highlights the importance of mass media in summoning followers to Brother Justin’s ministry. In other words, Brother Justin’s power results from the technological innovations of modernity and, in effect, the series critiques modernity itself by imbuing these technologies with an evil power.

The famous historical figure, Catholic priest Father Coughlin, similarly utilized mass media to draw followers to his controversial message. This newsreel describes Coughlin’s impact on the national discourse:

Right now, we’re living in an age of so many Father Coughlins that I don’t even feel it’s necessary to name the television network and its particular personalities that emulate his approach. Needless to say, the conservative pundits of today paint Barack Obama with the same brush that Coughlin and Brother Justin use to tar FDR.

I cannot help but wonder, then, if Carnivàle would have resonated more had it been released about a half a decade later in the midst of the Great Recession. As with Brother Justin, today’s religious zealots assert that the Apocalypse is upon us (tonight at 6:00 PM, to be exact). In a recent New York Times article about this prediction, Courtney Campbell, an Oregon State University professor of religion and culture, remarks “Ultimately we’re looking for some authoritative answers in an era of great social, political, economic, as well as natural, upheaval.” Carnivàle presents a similar historic moment and a shaken populace looking for the same sorts of answers. Sadly, the show arrived too soon, but we can still appropriate it to reflect upon today’s uncertainties.


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