Take the desperate migration of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and mix it with Ray Bradbury's demonic circus act in Something Wicked This Way Comes. The end result would look a lot like "Carnivale," HBO's latest must-see Sunday night offering. Though the network has dabbled with macabre themes in "Six Feet Under" (and even slightly in "Oz"), the new show goes for full-on Southern gothic chills with gusto, slowly unfolding a supernatural mystery set against the Great Depression.
It begins in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, where young Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) attempts to bury his deceased mother in the midst of a sandstorm, just as a bulldozer arrives to demolish the foreclosed family farm. Enter, conveniently, a traveling carnival, whose ringleader Samson (Michael J. Anderson) saves Ben from going to jail. The dirty-faced youth becomes a reluctant roustabout in the crew of freaks, which includes a bearded lady, a strong man, burlesque girls and a firebrand of a tarot reader, Sofie (Clea Duvall).
Meanwhile in California, minister Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) grapples with Okie migrants crashing his congregation and starts receiving ominous visions, though we question if it's really the man upstairs behind the messages. Justin and Ben both show ill-defined paranormal powers -- Justin to coerce, Ben to heal -- and they share the same terrifying dreams. A brief exposition from the pilot reveals that "a creature of light and a creature of darkness" is born into every generation, and by the end of episode three we can guess Ben and Justin are the chosen ones, even if it's not clear which is which or how their storylines will eventually intersect.
"Carnivale" captivates partly through its deliberate air of opaqueness, with a creepy quirkiness that makes comparisons to David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" almost compulsory (especially given the appearance of Michael J. Anderson, the dream dwarf of "Peaks"). But this show puts its supernatural elements more front and center and hints at a behind-the-curtain backstory similar to "The Prisoner."
Each hour-long episode is a visually stunning ride, with some scenes evocative of darkly rendered Norman Rockwell paintings, others like deranged variations of Walker Evans photos. The pilot especially packs in the eye candy, with a simply chilling "miracle" sequence at its end. Subsequent episodes settle into a more conventional narrative and visual style, though the gothic aesthetic remains unmistakable. It's not the kind of show you can just pick up in mid-stream, though, because nearly every scene leaks another minor clue to the greater mystery.
As the scruffy anti-hero Ben, Stahl balances just enough bile and bravado to make us root for him. Trickled out hints about the character's ambiguous history keeps the affair from being "Dark Shadows" with a Ferris wheel.
What scares me most about "Carnivale" is its potential staying power. Maybe I'm still smarting from the implosion of "Twin Peaks," but it's hard to guess how such a deliberately dense plotline can stay fresh over the course of an entire season -- or longer. Perhaps it's best not to question this particular sideshow, just to sit back and enjoy the genuine wonders along the way.
"Carnivale" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.