How would you like a career in show business?" a wizened carnival foreman named Samson slyly asks a young chain-gang fugitive named Ben Hawkins. It's 1934, Dust Bowl winds are blowing away farms and snuffing out livelihoods, and Ben (soul-fully played by Terminator 3's Nick Stahl) hasn't many options other than to sign on as a roustabout for an itinerant troupe of freaks and geeks. Though it includes the requisite bearded lady and Siamese twins, there's something especially creepy about this crew. The carny boss (referred to as Management) is never seen, and some of the performers appear telepathically endowed. Ben himself–much to his own surprise–is revealed to be a psychic healer who shares surreally violent visions with a man he has yet to meet: a fanatical small-town preacher named Brother Justin (The Shawshank Redemption's Clancy Brown).
Oh, what a tangled web Carnivále weaves–maybe too tangled for its own good. Part allegory, part supernatural thriller, the 12-part series seems to be channeling both Stephen King's apocalyptic epic The Stand and David Lynch's Twin Peaks, but especially the latter. It's not just the acerbic presence of Michael J. Anderson, the dancing dwarf from 1992's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, as Samson. There are also Lynchian frissons of terror scattered throughout; keep your eye on the fetus floating in a jar in the Sept. 21 episode. Such moments, however, can't compensate for the slogging pace and portentous dialogue. Informed that they're heading south, one carny worker says, "It's gonna be hotter than Hades down there." And judging by the first three chapters, it'll take a helluva long time to arrive.