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Freaky Sundays 

Carnivàle comes to town, plus Navy NCIS, Threat Matrix and Joe Pantoliano in The Handler

Thursday, Sep 25 2003
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Okay. I will grant you that dwarves, bearded ladies and catatonic psychics are a bit old hat, as are carnivals, the Great Depression, and perhaps even the year 1934, in which Carnivàle, the lavishly enigmatic new series on HBO (Sun., 9 p.m.), takes place.

On the other hand, are dwarves and bearded ladies any more clichéd than charismatic special agents (Navy NCIS, Threat Matrix), ballsy female investigators (Cold Case, Karen Sisco), cute blonds (Miss Match), neurotic singles (Coupling), schoolgirls with special powers (Joan of Arcadia) or any of the other major roles of this year’s fall season? I think not. So let’s give the freaks a break, shall we?

I once read an interview with Bob Dylan in which the mysterioso bard said that he didn’t really believe in democracy; he believed in kings and queens. An odd thing for an American to say, but he was probably referring to an ultimate belief in divine right and a radical vision of good and evil. Temperamentally, his songs hark back to an America that is mostly long gone, but which sticks around in odd corners of the nation’s psyche. You could catch a glimpse of it on a recent episode of Larry King, in which the ageless anchor interviewed the Reverend Franklin Graham, the slick, camera-ready minister who delivered the sermon at the recent memorial service for Johnny Cash.

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“This man’s in heaven,” the Reverend told King. “God forgave him. God cleansed him. And he received Christ into his heart as his own personal lord . . .” The Reverend sounded distinctly like a huckster to me, and for a moment, we could have been on the set of Carnivàle.

In one of my favorite scenes from the first three episodes, the traveling carnival whose cryptic goings-on are the subject of this series arrives in Tipton, a dust bowl town laid low by the Depression. When the local bigwig tells Samson (Michael J. Anderson, Twin Peaks), the wisecracking dwarf who runs the carnival’s day-to-day operations, that he’s not going to let a bunch of carnies rip off the good citizens of Tipton in times of economic hardship, Samson has an idea. The troupe’s newest recruit, the 18-year-old fugitive, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), has a reputation for faith healing. So Samson decides temporarily to drop the sword-swallowing, fortunetelling and striptease acts and transforms the carnival into a religious-revival show in which Hawkins will heal the (carefully chosen) sick.

“Think they’ll buy it?” a troupe member asks Samson, when the latter reveals his plan.

“These birds?” Samson replies contemptuously, referring to the townfolk of Tipton. “They’ll buy anything.”

(Samson is a great character. To misquote the great Randy Newman song “Rednecks,” he’s like a smart-ass New York dwarf.)

But what does Samson believe? “To each generation,” he tells us in a portentous voice-over at the beginning of the first episode, “is born a creature of light and a creature of darkness” — not exactly the statement of a hardened atheist. What’s more, he adds, the story we are about to see takes place in a time — the 1930s — when the final showdown between Good and Evil will begin. I suspect it will be well into this 12-part series before we get an inkling of what Samson means by that. Or maybe never.

Less obscure than Samson’s Gnostic musings are the identities of the creatures of light and darkness. The former is probably Hawkins, who can restore dead kittens to life and, in the opening episode, heals a young girl crippled by polio. Hawkins’ background is mysterious and his conversation is limited. The women like him, however, particularly Sofie the tarot-card reader (Clea DuVall), whose occasional anachronistic girl-power rants make her the least-convincing character in the drama.

So who’s the Evildoer? That would seem to be Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), a self-flagellating Methodist pastor in California who, like Hawkins, suffers from apocalyptic nightmares and visions. He cannot heal the sick, but he does have the ability to make people vomit money (coins only), and his enemies are often struck down by seizures at opportune moments. His great ambition is to become pastor to the “immigrants” — the dust bowl evacuees of Oklahoma, whom nobody else gives a damn about. Justin and Hawkins are
clearly on a collision course, but to what purpose it’s impossible to say.

As the above suggests, Carnivàle is a meaty, possibly indigestible, stew of characters, images and ideas. Its pace is stately, and there are passages when you don’t know what’s going on and don’t really care, either. But at its best, it has the allure of time travel. In one scene, young Hawkins walks into a peep-show tent. Onstage, Hopperesque women silently display their breasts, and for a moment you really do feel as if you’re at a carnival in 1934. Today, if you have enough cable channels, you can stare at dozens of breasts all night long. But in this brief scene, Carnivàle conjures up a world and time when they were definitely not available for 24/7 viewing. For now, that’s no small achievement.

 

There has been no terrorism in the U.S. since September 11, 2001, but it’s a growing business on our television screens. (Expect 24 hours of it on 24 alone.) The fictional terrorists never succeed, of course, but 9/11 aside, the parallel dream life supplied for them by our screenwriters is marked by a far greater degree of ingenuity and professionalism than the actual terrorists display in reality. But then, the government agents we see on the box are also improbably sharp. As Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (see feature story in this issue), told me, many Islamic terrorists are, without doubt, incompetent. On the other hand, he added, so are many CIA agents.

In Navy NCIS (CBS, Tues., 8 p.m.), terrorists try to assassinate an eerily realistic stand-in for George W. Bush. In fact, I’m not sure if it wasn’t Bush himself. At any rate, they don’t succeed, thanks largely to debonair Navy Criminal Investigative Service special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), and his foxy antagonist-cum-sidekick, Secret Service agent Kate Todd (Sasha Alexander). This time around, the terrorists use poison rather than bombs, and so many people were throwing up and having convulsions that, by the half-hour mark, I began to feel distinctly queasy myself. But Harmon and Alexander click nicely, and this looks like it could be a decent show. Just don’t watch it on a full stomach.

Threat Matrix (ABC, Thurs., 8 p.m.) is more problematic. Or, if you prefer, worse. Like a lot of new programs (Las Vegas, for example), it tries too hard. (The cameraman is like a kid with a brand-new car: zoom, zoom, zoom.) In this one the terrorists attempt to blow up the Chicago Stock Exchange. These particular jihadists are Indonesian, however, which makes them subtly different from Osama and al-Whatsit, and so on. There are characters in this show, but frankly I can’t remember much about them. It’s all much too hectic and frenetic in the current style. Still, there’s some cool stuff (satellite photographs of ships, etc.), and the idea that terrorists would use established drug routes (because law enforcement has mostly given up on the drugs) to smuggle bombs into the country is intriguing.

The Handler (CBS, Fri., Sept. 26, 10 p.m.), which has nothing to do with terrorism, is one of the most straightforwardly enjoyable programs of the new season. It won’t leave you scratching your head like Carnivàle, and it will keep you interested with its sharp characterizations, lack of sentimentality and unpredictable storylines. Or so I expect, given the excellence of the first episode. Essentially, this is a show about acting — and a talented cast is on hand to show us how it’s done.

Starring Joe Pantoliano (The Sopranos) as Joe Renato, an FBI agent whose job is to train and place undercover operatives in L.A., The Handler has all the juice of a good crime series, but none of the solemnity that’s the bane of the genre. Joe is a puppet-master of sorts, planting government agents in high-risk situations. Among his troupe are Sopranos alumna Lola Glaudini, Hill Harper (City of Angels), Tanya Wright (24) and Deadline’s Anna Belknap. Renato sends them all off on sting operations involving Russian-mafia prostitution rings, drug dealers and murderers. All they have to do is con criminals into accepting their assumed identities; all you have to do is sit back and watch.

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