By Carina Chocano
Updated September 12, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Carnivale: Photograph by Stacy Kranitz

Carnivàle is a puzzle. There’s a mysterious Okie kid (a fugitive from a chain gang) with supernatural powers and violent visions. There’s a mysterious small-town California minister also with visions and some pretty specific instructions from God (or possibly Satan). There’s a mysterious traveling freak show, fronted by a dwarf but run by the Almighty (known mysteriously as ”Management”). There’s a — yes, mysterious — Sybil-ish waitress in a diner, some mysterious images of soldiers in trenches and engaged in ground combat, and even some more mysterious images of a tattooed man slouching in the shrubbery. How does it all fit together? Could the tattooed man be slouching toward, er, Bethlehem? What’s with the indeterminately Euro spelling of ”carnival”? And most disturbing, what was HBO thinking?

Clearly, some sort of explanation is in order, and we get one, in part, from the resident dwarf, Samson (”Twin Peaks”’ Michael J. Anderson). He explains that the show really starts at the beginning, or rather, ”before the beginning, after the great war between heaven and hell.” He continues, ”To each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness.” And by now, it should be fairly clear who’s who in this scenario. Okie kid Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) brings dead kittens back to life and heals little paralytic girls. The minister, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), makes migrants regurgitate change and beats himself with a horse whip. The two have yet to meet — but all hell will presumably break loose when they do. That’s because we’re gearing up for a battle between good and evil, set against a suitably apocalyptic backdrop: drought, pestilence, famine, and impending war, courtesy of the year 1934.

Unfortunately, ”Carnivàle appears to be engaged in an age-old battle of its own, between good and boggy drama. The show’s driving mystery, so far, concerns Ben’s true identity, which we learn is more deeply connected to the carnies than it at first appears to be. As the carnival’s in-house prophets — a blind seer named Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) and a catatonic fortune teller named Apollonia (Diane Salinger) — are ready to duke it out over the boy’s soul, Ben becomes quietly smitten with the vegetating oracle’s tarot-card-reading daughter, Sofie. Aside from channeling her mother, Clea DuVall’s character also amazes with her anachronistically postfeminist attitude. After narrowly escaping rape, she’s subsequently berated by manager Clayton Jones (Tim DeKay) for going into town alone, thereby tacitly ”asking for it.” She responds by snapping ”The only thing I asked for was a tank of gas…and maybe ten minutes to myself!” You go, girl.

Though we aren’t told about the circumstances that ultimately lead to Ben’s crime and conviction, we do know that his life-restoring faculties have the unfortunate side effect of sucking the life out of other living things. So is Ben good or is he evil? (He seems too cute to be evil.) And what about that champion of ”old-time religion,” Brother Justin? (I’m leaning toward dangerous zealot, but mostly because he’s not as cute.) Three episodes in, the answer is as cloudy as ”Carnivàle”’s central premise, which hinges on some pretty unconventional, convoluted symbolic interpretations of historical events. As creator — executive producer Dan Knauf (”Wolf Lake”) recently told TV critics, the ’30s were ”the last great age of magic,” after which ”we, as a species, created and managed to harness the Bomb — and that was the beginning of the Age of Reason.” His reading of history is part of the problem. Just for the sake of playing along, leave aside Descartes and — what the hell — the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, World War I, and the Soviet Revolution, and it’s still hard to buy the notion of the Great Depression as a time of innocence and wonder. It’s even harder to extract fresh meaning from such calcified visual chestnuts as dwarfs, freaks, geeks, Okies, and religious nuts. (I imagine this would have been hard to do even way back in 1934.)

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is how ”Carnivàle” wound up cast as HBO’s next big thing — the show that would fill Carrie and Co.’s Manolos. If you squint, you might be able to see what the network was thinking three years ago when it first acquired the show. (Brown’s Brother Justin is delightfully unsettling as the creepy evangelist taking his orders from the wrong superpower, and it’s easy to imagine getting tangled up in the show’s many insidious loose threads.) But considering HBO’s knack for discovering fresh, clean, sharp, and deeply resonant metaphors for modern life in odd but nearby places, its decision seems, well, mysterious.