I’m not saying anything very profound by asserting that most of TV is unadulterated crap. It’s like saying that Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” theodicy is rendered irrevocably and eternally inadequate by the events of the Lisbon earthquake. I mean, duh.
Personally, I don’t mind that most of TV is a fetid cesspool of brain-dulling spew that caters to an audience that must be at least 85% drooling idiot. No one’s forcing me to watch it, you know? I can blow right by “The Apprentice” as I happily click my merry way over to “Planet Earth” on the Discovery Channel. Or Book TV on C-Span. Or Monday Night RAW. If TV wants to suck, let it suck. You can still manage to find some good stuff on there. Or read, I guess.
That said, I do have a problem when the aforementioned good stuff gets pulled like an accordion player on Showtime at the Apollo. This happens sometimes. A really thoughtful, intelligent, intriguing show somehow sneaks through television’s Creativity FilterTM, doesn’t attract the same number of viewers as, say, Survivor 14: More Unlikable People Sweating, and goes off the air before it’s really had a chance to get off the ground. The example most often cited of this sort of thing is, of course, FOX’s Arrested Development, which made it 2 or so seasons before the suits killed it. In that short period of time, the show garnered about 20 Emmy nominations. It was cancelled, fans gnashed their teeth, the media bemoaned the loss of another “smart” TV show, and then hyped another interview with Nick Carter about his new role as United Nations Dolphin Ambassador. FOX’s Family Guy is another example, though that show was famously brought back following an unexpectedly strong performance in the DVD market.
HBO’s Carnivàle is another show that was high on awesomeness and low on ratings that ultimately ended up cancelled. The show was a deliberately-paced supernatural/historical drama (explaining why it was cancelled) that ran two parallel plot lines. The first involved a laconic young farmhand named Ben Hawkins who joins up with a travelling carnival following the financial collapse of his family farm and the death of his mother. It is soon revealed that Ben is endowed with supernatural powers of the healing and psychic variety. Ultimately, we find that he is the Avatar of Light, a real cosmic A-lister who is charged with breaking a cycle of events that are to end with the Trinity atomic test and, perhaps, Armageddon. The second plotline follows the ascent of a menacing Christian minister named Brother Justin Crowe (played by Clancy Brown!), who turns out to be Ben’s opposite, the “Usher of Destruction,” and the final Avatar of Darkness. He is, as you might infer, a real asshole. In any case, Carnivàle painstakingly crafted these two opposing tales into a weekly hourlong drama that was part religious allegory, part nouveau-Apocrypha, part human drama, and part supernatural/horror/suspense alchemical production. The following cool things happen which automatically make Carnivàle better than 99% of shows currently on the air:
1. In a dream/flashback, Justin as a young boy snaps a guy’s neck with his mind.
2. Ben heals a paralyzed girl, and the act of doing so drains the life from some nearby vegetation.
3. The Freemasons get involved. Tip for all aspiring screenwriters: you cannot go wrong with Freemasons in your film or TV show.
4. Brother Justin embraces his fate by announcing “I am the Left Hand of God.” Maybe not as weighty and resonant as the wisdom of Simon Cowell, but still. Sounds cool.
5. Three words: Spectral lynch mob.
And that’s just the non-spoiler stuff that I can safely reveal to anyone who might get interested in checking it out on DVD. Carnivàle is easily one of the most well-done, creative productions I have ever seen, be it on TV or big screen. Even during its slower episodes, it is an engrossing experience long on the “wide-eyes factor.” It was probably these slower episodes that doomed the show, and that’s a shame; it’s clear from what was completed that writer/creator Daniel Knauf had big plans for the show and was going to weave real history into his fictional world to satisfying, perhaps chilling, effect. Knauf had a six-year plan, with the show’s arc split into 3 “Books,” 2 seasons per book. Had seasons 3 & 4 been produced, the show would have taken place between 1939 and 1940. Seaons 5 & 6 would have comprised 1944-1945, leading up to the Trinity test. In 1939 Germany invaded Poland and kicked off World War II, New York’s World Fair opened, and the Holocaust had been poisoning the world for several years. All rich subject matter that the show could have woven into its plot. Instead, HBO has decided they’re full-steam ahead with Big Love, which is a lead balloon of a show if I ever saw one. Well, 10 minutes of one. It had bored the hell out of me at that point.
There is still a chance that the show will be revived. HBO has hinted that a television movie is possible, and a ratings success for the show might resurrect it. I hope it does, and for the reason any TV executive should appreciate: I want to see what happens next.