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20 Years Later, Daniel Knauf Still Wants to Finish the Story of Carnivàle

The creator of the short-lived HBO drama even has a plan for how to see it through.
  • Nick Stahl, Clea DuVall, Daniel Knauf (Photos: HBO, Daniel Knauf; Primetimer graphic)
    Nick Stahl, Clea DuVall, Daniel Knauf (Photos: HBO, Daniel Knauf; Primetimer graphic)

    This fall marks the 20th anniversary of Carnivàle’s premiere on HBO. Riding high on the success of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire, the network pushed into more uncharted territory, with a Dust Bowl-era tale of angels and demons, magic and mystery, all set among the denizens of a traveling carnival. The show's creator and head writer was Daniel Knauf, who'd previously written for the short-lived CBS werewolf drama Wolf Lake. That Carnivàle was nothing like HBO's other hit dramas likely contributed to its struggle with ratings, but it also made it one of TV's most fascinating and compelling shows. Dense with imagery and foreshadowing, Carnivàle laid out the parallel narratives about Okie healer Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) and tortured preacher Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), each of them part of a line of avatars — one good, one evil — that has existed since the great war between heaven and hell. The series unfolded with the confidence of a story that knew the path it had laid out for itself.

    That's because Knauf did know what lay ahead. When HBO ended the series after two seasons, fans continued to feverishly debate how the story would have continued, with fortune-teller Sophie (Clea DuVall) newly revealed as Justin's daughter and an avatar known as the Omega. In 2013, Knauf gave an interview to Emily St. James at The A.V. Club, in which he laid out what had been his six-season plan for the entire saga of Carnivàle, one which would become enmeshed in World War II and then culminate in the U.S. nuclear bomb tests in the desert at Los Alamos.

    "Taking us to the end, it’s all about the [atomic] bomb," Knauf said at the time. "It’s all about the Manhattan Project and worrying about it, finding out what it is. The Germans have a competing project, and trying to stop it. Trying to stop the bomb from happening."

    We had our own conversation with Knauf in August about the 20th anniversary of Carnivàle, its connection to one of the year's biggest films, Oppenheimer, and the desire he still harbors to see the series through to its initial six-season plan.

    The looming dread of the Los Alamos nuclear tests hung over the events of Carnivàle from its very first moments. In the prologue to the series premiere, Samson (Michael J. Anderson) spoke of "the day when a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason." And in the show's second season, Ben was subjected to visions on multiple occasions that placed him in the desert at the moment of the bomb test. For Knauf, the nuclear age brought about an end to the long adolescence of humanity. The "Age of Miracles," wherein avatars took part in an ancient battle between good and evil, gave way to the "Age of Science," when humankind achieved its own wonders, including the ability to destroy itself.

    "It's like God tossed us the car keys and said, ‘Okay, guys, you're on your own,’" says Knauf. "You're no longer viable as a proxy in a battle between me and Satan, because now you're making your own stars.'"

    The nuclear tests at Trinity have been in the pop culture zeitgeist this year due to Christopher Nolan's blockbuster film Oppenheimer. Like Carnivàle, Nolan's film places the moral and spiritual weight of the world on the event of that first nuclear test. In both stories, it's the moment that changes mankind forever.

    Oppenheimer's nuclear tests aren't the only thing tying Carnivále to the current zeitgeist. Knauf also talked about setting Carnivále during the Dust Bowl period, between World Wars I and II, as an intentional inflection point for the United States at a time when global fascism was on the rise. "There are very good arguments that have been made that World War I and World War II were just World War Part A and Part B, and that during that [in-between] period, the Nazis were having rallies in Madison Square Garden, and the KKK showed huge numbers," Knauf says. "The United States could have flipped either way in that period of time there. And had they flipped toward the Axis Powers, we would've been subjugating Europe with Hitler. And so it was a time of great consequence, and choices were being made about our identity as a nation."

    Knauf's original plan for the end of Carnivàle was for Ben to not merely fail to prevent the Los Alamos nuclear test but to realize that he must ensure it happens. By the end of the series, Ben and Sophie would have produced a child, and that child would have been the key to setting off the bomb. "His real goal is to make sure the bomb does go off," Knauf says, "because that's mankind's destiny. That's where mankind stops being a child."

    Knauf was never able to see Carnivàle through to this end, as HBO canceled the show after two seasons. But the idea that there has always been this fully articulated six-season plan in Knauf's head to play the series out to its conclusion has always compelled fans. And in this current age of TV reboots and continuations, the idea that Carnivàle might be resurrected is suddenly not so outlandish, even if the 20-year interim would make resuming the show with the original cast nearly impossible. You might expect the creator of a show that's been off the air for 18 years to be eager to change the subject when it comes to fanciful notions of a reboot, but Knauf is not only interested, he has a plan.

    "I'd love to finish the story," he told Primetimer, "and I have every intention of finishing the story. I've seen the entire series, and I think it's kind of great. I enjoyed it. But I'm the only person. I'm an audience of one. I got together with Scott Winant, who was one of the producers, and we went into HBO to pitch, not a reboot but a pickup. And I was advocating for a reboot. I said, 'Look, it's been too many years. It's 20 years. We gotta recast, we gotta start from the beginning. We gotta reshoot the first season with the new cast and just continue on. And the only way I'm gonna do this is if they commit to six seasons, 'cause I'm not gonna go through this again.'"

    HBO shot down the idea, according to Knauf, and the cabler also rejected a half-measure approach which would have caught up with the story 20 years after it had left off. "Thank God they said no," Knauf says now. His new plan is to essentially make an end run around the pitching process, and it starts with a lawyer. "My attorney has been pursuing publishing rights," Knauf says of his plan to write the entire story of Carnivàle as a series of novels. "The book would be a trilogy. Each book would contain two seasons' worth of material. And so, I think that's a big step; if we release the books, then it gives HBO something to look at and say, 'Ah, okay. It's all there.'"

    The idea is to, as Knauf put it, "do a George R. R. Martin on it" and hand HBO (or whoever) a finished piece of IP that they can then adapt. "First of all, I hate the word 'IP,'" Knauf makes sure to note. "Or 'content.' I hate that word. But that's all they're doing, is the stuff that's pre-sold. And it's really just the Dumbo Feather. The stuff they say, "Well, it's pre-sold," well, it's this graphic novel that 90 people bought. It's silly."

    The way Knauf looks at it, 20 years after creating what today would be the rarest of things — a fully original work of sweeping, big-budget fantasy and drama — he needs to approach the TV business from a different point on the food chain. "I kind of wanna move my stakes upstream a little bit and create the IP and then have them license it from me," he says. And whether I decide I wanna write the series is up to me, if I'm available. Or I could just hand it off to somebody else to take a whack at it. Because I really think that's the only way to make a living in this business anymore. At least it's the only satisfactory way to make a living. I like making sh*t up. I don't like rambling around. I don't like coming in and visiting some of the writer's playground and playing with his toys. I like playing with my own damn toys."

    Until these proposed Carnivàle novels become a reality, Knauf is busy working on another project, albeit one temperamentally far away from a world of Dust Bowl angels and demons. "I've been wanting to write a Christmas story," he says, "an original Christmas story, not some silly Hallmark thing, and not ‘Santa is a psycho killer’ kind of thing or pervy elf stories. I wanna write an earnest Christmas story. And that's a well-tilled patch of ground. A lot of great writers have done Christmas stories."

    The project is called Gingerland, and it's about three sentient gingerbread children. "It's about three of them, and they live in this perfect little world, and they fall out of that perfect little world into another world that looks very much like their own world, only it's titanic. It's ginormous. They discover that their entire world is basically just a holiday diorama that's set up in the lobby of an Adirondack hotel."

    Gingerland currently exists as a Substack, which is especially interesting considering Knauf sees his story as a reflection of the polarization of the internet. "I realized, oh my God, three kids living in a bubble, fall out into the real world, find out that there's threats to their bubble that they would've been unaware of had they not fallen out of that bubble. And they grow and they learn and they make friends. And they have to exercise great courage to overcome the situation. And I realized, 'Oh, f*ck, I'm writing about the internet.' This is basically a story about the internet, and that what we do is we create these bubbles for ourselves. We curate our pages and we block people that maybe have an unpleasant opinion or we don't agree with. And so we build this perfect little world of people who agree with us. And meanwhile there's people just outside of that who are watching us. They're watching everything we're doing. They're logging every product we buy, every ad we look at. And they certainly mean to exploit us, if not mean us actual harm. And so it's like, okay, that's what this story is about. And so I'm very proud of it.”

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Carnivale, HBO, Clancy Brown, Clea DuVall, Daniel Knauf, Nick Stahl