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Taking a tour with 'Carnivale'

Actress calls HBO series 'Grapes of Wrath' meets 'Twin Peaks'

By Meriah Doty

DuVall Stahl
Clea DuVall, left, plays opposite Nick Stahl in HBO's new series "Carnivale."

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(CNN) -- "The people in these towns -- they're asleep. We wake them up," promises Sofie, a character in "Carnivale," HBO's latest series.

Sofie, played by actress Clea DuVall, is a tarot card reader in a 1930s traveling carnival in what The New York Times is calling HBO's "latest idiosyncratic drama." (HBO is a division of AOL Time Warner, as is CNN.)

With a large ensemble cast of characters, including Amy Madigan, Nick Stahl and DuVall, the show follows a carnival and sideshow as it travels the United States during the Great Depression. (Character guide)

DuVall spoke to about the program -- which debuts Sunday, September 14, at 9:35 p.m. EST -- in a recent interview.

DuVall, who's also appeared in "Identity" and "Girl Interrupted," described "Carnivale" as "'Grapes of Wrath' and 'Twin Peaks' coming together."

"We have the bearded lady, Siamese twins [and] giants. We have all the things you would expect. Those characters are performers. They're the celebrities in the carnival, the royalty in our group," DuVall said.

"The people who are considered the human oddities aren't odd to us. This is our life. These are our coworkers," she explained.

'General weirdness'

DuVall's not the first person to make the comparison to "Twin Peaks," the early-'90s show created by David Lynch that was known for its spooky and sinister atmosphere.

"It's a really edgy, risky television show that to me brings back memories of 'Twin Peaks.' It's complicated, confusing and beautifully shot," said Daily Variety TV editor Joseph Adalian.

The traveling carnival, however, represents only part of the series' complex story line.

Another story line, occurring simultaneously with that of the carnival, revolves around a charismatic pastor named Brother Justin, who preaches in the San Joaquin Valley of California -- where countless farmers fleeing great dust storms arrived during that time in history.

Stahl Brown
The separate story lines involving Ben Hawkins, played by Nick Stahl, left, and Brother Justin, played by Clancy Brown, eventually link up in "Carnivale."

Brother Justin, played by Clancy Brown, deals with "struggles with faith and opening a church and the underlying battle between good and evil," said DuVall.

Though the show has earned good marks from reviewers, its outlandish characters may prevent it from having the breakout success of other HBO series such as "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." Then again, HBO is the place that turned a series about undertakers -- "Six Feet Under" -- into a hit.

"I think it will get mostly positive reviews but some people will be put off by the general weirdness of the show," Adalian said.

Nevertheless, he praises HBO for putting the show on the air at all.

"I think it's a show only HBO could do, and those are usually the shows that ultimately work for the network," said Adalian.

Rotating directors offer fresh takes

It's also a show that demands a viewer's attention, said DuVall.

"It's a serial. You have to watch it every week to know what's going on. The story lines are pretty intricate," she said.

Although she's hesitant to offer details -- "I don't know how much I'm allowed to divulge" -- DuVall did talk about the look of the show.

"Visually it's the most beautiful thing I've seen on television. Every week we made a feature film," the 25-year-old actress said.

DuVall face
Clea DuVall said she hopes "Carnivale" gets picked up for another season.

The cast worked with several directors -- eight different ones are listed by HBO -- and each brought his or her own take to the material.

"It was interesting to me developing a new relationship with a director every week. ... Different directors brought out different things in all of our performances. You're constantly being challenged," she said.

Duvall said "Carnivale" viewers will be just as surprised as she was when she started working on the project. "Every time I read a script ... I was bugging the writers [to find out] what's happening next. I would never get the full idea of what was going to happen until I sat down and actually read it myself."

But Adalian's take is mixed. He's not sure audiences will stick with the show. People will "either passionately love it or passionately not know what the hell is going on," he said.

Unlike the broadcast networks, HBO doesn't need big numbers to survive, he added, but "what it needs is a loyal audience."

So will "Carnivale" continue its travels longer than a few weeks? In Adalian's words, "We will just have to wait and see."

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