To put it simply, Carnivàle really doesn't go out of its way to help you out or draw you in quickly. It feels very much that the makers already had the big story in their minds and knew they could deliver it over so many seasons but what they didn't do is to work in the short term. Instead of really hooking the viewer, the show basically us "trust me on this". As we see, this was not an approach that was successful in getting viewers and to be honest it is not an approach that makes the show particularly accessible even for those that want to watch it (like myself). That said, I don't think it would have needed too much to provide that hook because it really does ask lots of questions through the opening episodes but the problem is that it adds more mystery and more questions on top of these, with increasingly weird and violent images – again making me understand why viewers generally didn't wait for it to get to where it is going.
And it does take its time to start revealing things; indeed the final episode is really the main point where things heavily fall into place – which makes me keen for the second season. While I did find the first season hard work at times, there is plenty going on which is engaging as long as you do give it time and patience to go at the pace and manner in which it wants. The carnival itself is filled with characters and relationships and seeing these be shown and change was interesting. At the same time, although I did not always know what was going on, following the more sinister and supernatural side is engaging because the tone is often creepy and oddly claustrophobic in its delivery. There is a real sense of detail and concentration to the delivery which I really appreciated and although there were aspects that tried my patience at times, there were no threads or characters where I felt bored or that they were keeping me from something more interesting.
In terms of the production itself, you can see the money they spent. The sets, costumes and so on are very well done and generally the show has a great "feel" and atmosphere that helped draw me in even at times when it was being its most difficult. The cast are also good and even the few faces that broke me out of character early on all settled in – and there are plenty of familiar faces. Brown is probably the hardest to accept but soon he is in the swing although the downside is that he was always going to be on one side of this thing; likewise with Stahl, although he has more shading to do. Dekay, Huss, Anderson and many others are all good – it is a show with a real ensemble even if several characters are more the focus.
I started Carnivàle knowing it was canceled already and, despite this I am glad I did as I found it well made, and engaging in a dark and mysterious. This is not to say that I didn't struggle at times and find that it was nearly deliberately difficult and perhaps a bit naïve in its "trust me with your time and it'll pay off in the long term" approach. Hopefully, with so much foundation laid and the (comparative) clarity of the final episode, the second season will have all the strengths of the first but a lot more positive movement and drive.