Carnivàle: social surrealism and subjectivity

Research output: Contribution to ConferencePaper


HBO’s short lived drama Carnivàle (2003-5) is unusual for fantasy television in that it is set in the past, in the United States during the Great Depression and the Dustbowl. Its Emmy award winning title sequence merges stock footage from the 1930s with artwork presented as tarot cards, indicating how the show collapses history and mythology into one another by incorporating realism (documentary-style and attention to period detail), supernatural elements (especially modes of prediction and fortune-telling), and a mythic battle of good and evil. The show includes a historical consultant in its credits but period is not its only concern. Nick Stahl, who plays protagonist Ben Hawkins, suggests that it can be read as a story of “self-realization” for the main characters (season one DVD feature). In this way, Carnivàle deals with familiar territory for either fantasy or “quality” television, if in a distinctive visual style. The sense of national crisis apparent in the lovingly-rendered 30s setting is layered with the individual struggles of two protagonists, Ben, a young man who joins the carnival after his mother dies in the Dustbowl, and Brother Justin, a California preacher, and with upheavals in their respective communities. This paper will analyse how the show mobilises, perhaps not entirely successfully, realism and surrealism, history and mythology, the personal and the political in its examination of two protagonists who find that they are far from ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Via an aesthetic that incorporates documentary-style realism, painstaking period detail, and fantastic surrealism, the personal and family history of both Ben and Justin is uncovered, alongside revelations about their roles as representatives of good and evil in a battle that has been waged “through time immemorial” (in producer Ron Moore’s words). The notion of the ordinary and the extraordinary is further emphasised by the carnival itself, with many of the characters being “freaks” (from telepaths to conjoined twins). The exploration of identity here is worked out against the backdrop of “this difficult, terrible, desperate time in American history,” as creator Daniel Knauf describes it, negotiating ideologies of religious belief, esoteric lore, free will and predestination that speak to contemporary concerns about how we construct identity in relation to changes in history and society
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 9 Oct 2010
EventMemory, Identity, and New Fantasy Cultures - Kingston University
Duration: 9 Oct 2010 → …


ConferenceMemory, Identity, and New Fantasy Cultures
Period9/10/10 → …


  • Carnivale
  • 1930s
  • Great Depression
  • television
  • HBO


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