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FALL TV

'Carnivale' atmosphere gets lost in pretentious new HBO series

The first thing you notice about HBO's "Carnivale" is the way it looks, which is more cinematic than any show on TV right now. On the one hand, it invokes "The Grapes of Wrath" with its cruel wind, its fog of dust, its torn clothes, and forlorn faces. It's a Depression-era portrait of muted American lives. On the other hand, it is infiltrated with vivid carnival freaks -- the bearded lady smoking her pipe, the teen Siamese twins, the catatonic fortune-teller, and the archly cynical dwarf played by Michael J. Anderson from "Twin Peaks." Within its Steinbeckian frame there beats a David Lynch heart.

But alas, the seductive, interesting surface of "Carnivale" can't mask its facile pretensions. The show, which premieres Sunday night at 9:30, doesn't just aspire to be an engaging, gorgeously photographed drama about the secret lives of Dust Bowl carnies. It wants to be a cosmic battle between Good and Evil hosted by no less than the man upstairs, God, obscurely referred to among the carnies as "management." Created by Daniel Knauf (of the woeful "Wolf Lake"), the show isn't interested in being merely a human-scaled metaphor; it has its sights set on major allegory.

"To each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness," Samson the dwarf (Anderson) says to the camera at the beginning of the series. One creature is Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), a dazed young chain-gang fugitive hiding out in the Carnivale. He has the power to heal, and in a scene featured in HBO's commercial for the show, his touch sets a paralyzed girl on her feet. The other creature is Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a scrupulous minister in California who is magically able to convert downtrodden migrant workers to God. He lives with his prim sister, Iris (Amy Madigan), and we occasionally see him whipping himself in his bedroom for having sinful thoughts -- possibly about her.

The show doesn't make it clear which character plays for the light team and which is standing up for darkness, but the two men seem to be moving toward an explosive, biblical confrontation of some kind. As the writers slowly set up their "X-Files"-like mythology, they lean heavily on the enigma button, and after previewing three episodes I'm still not sure where the series is headed. The writers also like to use mystifying dream sequences, and each episode is punctuated with anarchic imagery from the restless sleep of Ben and Brother Justin.

Some of the big puzzle in "Carnivale" involves Ben's parentage. He met the carnies coincidentally, but his family tree is rooted among these strangers who move from town to town, offering citizens a night of decadence. When he's not engaging in reticent flirtation with Tarot card reader Sofie (Clea DuVall), he's pursuing leads about his own past. Meanwhile, Brother Justin is busy creating a church for the poor, despite his townsfolk's hostility toward the migrant workers. The mystery surrounding Justin involves the ultimate goal of his zealotry.

Stahl, with his watchful eyes, is one of the show's strengths. He has a boyish face, but the grim expression of a worn-out elder. As Justin, Brown is a plus, too, preaching with an uncomfortable degree of passion. It's really too bad these performances -- along with DuVall's somber, tough Sofie -- are in service of so much bombast and seriousness. There's great promise in the fetching "Carnivale," in the human nature of people who live on the road, call themselves freaks, and expose themselves to the eyes of the world. But in its effort to be important, the series is diminished.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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