Which means it's time to switch modes, and start getting other people watching it. My previous message was a mild rant; here's a more useful review.
Carnivale centers on two men at the center of a spiritual whirlwind in the middle of the Great Depression. One is Ben Hawkins, a troubled young man who hooks up with a traveling carnival after the death of his mother. The other is Brother Justin, a small-town preacher whose ego is deeply entangled with his desperate desire to help people. These two stories proceed in parallel, each one just beginning to find his role in the larger scheme of things.
The series is mythology written on the human stage; like all great mythology, it mixes the mundane and the spiritual so freely that they are inseparable. On the one hand, the setting is both plain and bleak. The carnival is just scratching out a living, traveling from town to town, dealing with the simple human problems -- finding the next meal, figuring out who belongs with whom, love and pride at war in this cramped group. And the town is a morass of hypocrisy, full of people who are perfectly respectable, and who will do anything necessary to stay that way.
But behind all that is a story that is deeply supernatural, as Ben and Justin both begin to discover that they are far more than meets the eye, and their reactions to their powers define who they will be. This isn't about superheroes who blithely go off and fight evil: rather, the first season is a quiet exploration of how power can be both frightening and tempting. Things do go bump in the night here, but the horror is subtle -- the show mostly eschews fancy special effects in favor of good acting.
It's not going to be to everyone's taste. The story is clearly heading in an apocalyptic direction, and there are times when it is downright operatic, especially in the story of Brother Justin. I suspect that religion is going to prove utterly central to the story, although not in a conventional way. It's not kind to the church, which plays a significant role in Brother Justin's story. (Although, truth to tell, no institution comes off well in this tale.) It starts very quietly and slowly -- while I was hooked by the end of the first episode, I suspect some people will find it plodding. And it demands patience and attention, building at a pace very reminiscent of Babylon 5, with the first season just setting the pieces into place and many mysteries just hinted at. This is not a story to jump into the middle of.
But let me reiterate: IMO, this is the best start I've ever seen to a TV show, and certainly the best show I've seen since B5 ended. It satisfies my hunger for a show with serious long-term structure, with strong episodes serving as building blocks in a larger edifice. The direction is good, and the acting is sometimes heartbreakingly honest. While there is no doubt who the protagonists are, the background is lushly drawn with a supporting cast whose plots often serve as the soul of the tale.
Yes, we have it all on tape, and can loan it to people who are willing to be responsible with it. (Especially for viewing parties.) And if you've got HBO, for heaven's sake pick it up -- as far as I'm concerned, this show makes the HBO subscription worthwhile all by itself...