Those who watched the first season of HBO's Carnivàle might remember a slippery sideshow hoax: Circus-goers paid to see a Man Eating Chicken, and when the screen was pulled away, there was a man, eating chicken. Now in its sophomore year, Carnivàle feels just like that a ruse with no payoff. What can be sorted from the rat's nest of plotlines: Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), the Okie–turned–carnie helper with the healing hands and bad dreams, has learned that his mission is to defeat devil preacher Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) and ultimately stop the creation of the atom bomb. ''If you try to escape your destiny, the world will not escape its terrible fate!'' screeches the voice of the carnival's ever-unseen Management, who sounds like Linda Hunt and is concealed, ludicrously, behind a dainty half-curtain. I keep waiting for someone to put on a puppet show.
Punch and Judy with their simple act/react story arc would be preferable to this go-everywhere-and-nowhere show. Carnivàle could've been dazzling: Spinning an end-time story in the depths of the Depression is a fine idea and there's no eerier setting than an old-time carnival, which served Ray Bradbury so darkly in Something Wicked This Way Comes. And certainly the large, talented cast, particularly Tim DeKay as humble handyman Jonesy (who I wish would unjoin this circus), can't be blamed. The peeving thing about Carnivàle isn't even its circuitous, peekaboo mythology. It's how little explanation the show gives in return for en-during its snake-biting preachers, eyeless hillbilly killer, and the mystical Henry Scudder (John Savage), Ben's dad and the man both he and Justin need to find although the series refuses to properly articulate why. Instead, coy Carnivàle distracts with dusty riddles and tarot cards, nightmare clichés, mutilated dolls, and twitchy Baby Jesus statues hoping we'll forget to demand what we came for: answers or a story that makes sense. Four episodes into Carnivàle's second season, I can feel my head grow round, flat, and cherry-flavored. Yup, I've been made a sucker!