The thing I like about HBO (beyond the basic issues of quality storytelling) is the lack of control it brings to the audience. When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz came on television once a year; you caught it, or you waited another year. No revival showings at lovingly restored theaters, no video; you were at the mercy of the networks. There was a certain charm to that, a real excitement that went along with a once-a-year event.
HBO puts together movies or series and then shows them on their own schedule, at their own whim, without much reference to the big network scheduling system. They might show three episodes of something and then not show the next three until January, and if that’s the case, you wait. We wait long long months between seasons of The Sopranos, for example. A marketing ploy, you sniff, and sure. But it’s one that works.
In a way, this approach is re-educating the audience. The networks taught us to expect short story arcs, problems presented and solved in a half hour or hour; between eight and nine cancer is faced and fought, an attraction matures into committment, criminals are found out and brought to justice. We are impatient. We want not only clear, tight, seamless endings, but we want them fast.
But not on HBO. HBO snickers at such whinings. You’ll wait for The Sopranos, and you’ll like waiting, by gum. Carrie’s romantic fate keeping you up at night? Too bad. Sure, the last episode of Sex and the City is filmed and waiting, but it’s not for you or me to see, not yet. Shocked that the main character in The Wire showed up floating in the river, and can’t figure out what in the heck is going on with the Russians — are they really just going to get off free? Sooner or later, when the people at HBO have had their fun watching us squirm, they will bring back the Baltimore crew, but I’m pretty confident it’s not going to be anything I’m anticipating.
Carnivale is a new series, a short one. Just twelve episodes. We’ve seen nine of them so far. Critical reviews aren’t great. Too odd, too quirky, too slow, too demanding. The audience wants some answers, they say. The audience is confused.
Maybe we are, and maybe we aren’t. Confused might be just the ticket in a case like this. I sit down to watch Carnivale on Sunday nights and it’s true, I don’t understand every odd David Lynch-ish turn, but I’m sure interested. Just when I think it’s going to turn into a remake of the pretentious Twin Peaks, there’s a quick shuffle and voila: I’m surprised, or touched, or just plain scared. I’m normally not big on religious symbolism or mystical goings-on, but I find myself wondering about these grimy, other-talented characters who are slogging their way through the depression, grappling with good and evil and things they don’t understand but have to pay for anyway.
If your normal bill of fare is loving Raymond and you get fidigty waiting while Regis draws out the answers on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, you’re not going to like Carnivale. You probably won’t like a lot of the other stuff on HBO either. But if you’re willing to put yourself into the storyteller’s hands and let somebody else make the decisions, you will be rewarded. If you sit back, relax, and let it happen.