In a article entitled "Carnies, Dust Bowl, Appocalypse" in the September 12, 2003 editon of the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley suggests that "even before the first plot point drops, however, viewers are warned to brace themselves for myth and allegory.". She is in fact referring to the show's opening monologue spoken by Samson. For the most part, Carnivāle was praised by critics for its originality but at the same time suffered some somehwhat negative feedback as well.
The mystery surrounding the characters and storyline itself resulted in much confusion among viewers. What did the visions mean? What was the connection between Carnivāles' two main characters? What significance did icons like the Knights Templar have? The fact that background stories were going unexplained was not recepted in the best of lights. In a TV review for Entertainment Weekly, Carina Chocano writes "'Carnivāle appears to be engaged in an age-old battle of its own, between good and boggy drama." Critics figured that viewers would not catch on to Carnivāle enough to make it a surefire hit because storylines and the like were far too confusing and unexplained.
Another point that many reviews of the show made was exactly how much sorrow, pain, and sadness could the viewers take from this show? Heather Havrilesky of Salon.com writes "Unmitigated pain and disappointment might be new for television, and therefore worthy of applause, but the appeal of such a dark path wears thin pretty quickly.". Critics feared that viewers wouldn't be able to handle these dark emotions for such a long period of time.
While Season 1 had high ratings and was well recepted, the numbers started to decline during Season 2. The ratings began to pick up during the end of the second season but by that time it was too late and HBO cancelled the series after only 24 episodes.