HBO's Cirque du So-So

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When a TV show advertises itself as "magical" or "surreal," be afraid. Since David Lynch's Twin Peaks, the supposedly bizarre has evolved its own cliches. These were best satirized in the 1995 movie Living in Oblivion, in which Steve Buscemi plays a director who casts a dwarf in a dream sequence, only to have the little person mock him. "The only place I've seen dwarfs in dreams is in stupid movies like this!" the tiny actor says. "Oh, make it weird, put a dwarf in it!"

In HBO's magical, surreal new drama, Carnivale, the first thing we see is ... a dwarf. Samson (Michael J. Anderson, of Lynch's Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive), the manager of a traveling carnival plying the Dust Bowl in 1934, sets the scene: ever since God gave dominion over the world to "the crafty ape he called man," good and evil have clashed in secret, magical combat. "To each generation," he intones, "was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness." Now the goodies and baddies are preparing for a final battle. In one efficient monologue Anderson sets up the show's mythology — and informs us that Carnivale is officially weird.

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This is no knock on Anderson, who gives the series' best performance as the flinty carnie boss. Nor is it implausible that a dwarf would work in a carnival. But it's an unfortunate symbol of why the first three episodes of Carnivale (debuts Sept. 14, 9:30 p.m. E.T.) are as frustrating as they can be spellbinding. For every genuinely surprising image or premise, another is creepy in exactly the way you would expect it to be.

Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), an escapee from a chain gang, is burying his mother outside her dust-blown shack when the traveling show rolls by. There's more to Ben than he lets on (he can heal the sick by touch), and also more to this carnival. Besides the hootchy-kootchy dancers and bearded lady, there's a real psychic and a comatose but sentient telepath; and Samson answers to an unseen superior known only as "Management," who orders him to hire Ben as a roustabout because "he was expected." Meanwhile, in California, ambitious minister Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) is also showing off supernatural muscle: when a woman steals from the collection basket, he makes her appear to vomit silver dollars. Which of the two magic men is the creature of light, and which is of darkness, is for Carnivale's creator, Daniel Knauf, to know and us to find out ver-r-y slowly.

Setting Carnivale in the apocalyptic time of the Bonus Army and Hitler's rise was inspired, and the show looks as spectacular as we expect from HBO; it captures Middle America in a million luscious shades of brown and pulls off the occasional novel, spooky image. But we also expect the home of Tony Soprano to give us characters with well-imagined inner lives. Brother Justin comes across as a typical whited sepulcher — if there's one thing more trite than a dwarf in a surreal drama, it's a preacher with a dark side — and Brown's campy performance largely involves shouting "Enough!" and "No-o-o-o!" with horror-flick pathos. Stahl is more modulated as Ben, but the script stagily walks him from one set piece to another to establish our sympathy: he breaks up a near rape, consoles a mother whose baby has died and so on. God can get away with such synchronicity, but a TV show can't.

Carnivale leaves enough loose threads to knit an XXL sweater, and from them it might weave a story that really does defy expectations. But for a show that prides itself on strangeness, it is the most conventional HBO drama in years. If you took away the nudity and profanity from The Wire and Six Feet Under, they still couldn't air on network TV: their morality is too vague, their characters are too complex. Clean up Carnivale, and you'd have something not unlike ABC's spooky Miracles from last season. Carnivale's myth and Manichaeism may lure viewers inside the tent, but weirdness is merely a dime-store novelty. Capturing the ambiguities of life and of people is still the most elusive magic of all.