I do tip my cap to Ren Faire

What do you call unscripted TV featuring lunatics — when you’re not calling it “C-SPAN,” that is? If the phrase “reality television” comes to mind, dismiss it as insufficient right away. Abandon, too, the staid moniker “docuseries.” HBO’s Ren Faire, available now in its full, three-episode glory, is too unruly a beast for such a […]

What do you call unscripted TV featuring lunatics — when you’re not calling it “C-SPAN,” that is? If the phrase “reality television” comes to mind, dismiss it as insufficient right away. Abandon, too, the staid moniker “docuseries.” HBO’s Ren Faire, available now in its full, three-episode glory, is too unruly a beast for such a tame description. Tiger King meets Game of Thrones meets Succession, the show surveys eccentricity, greed, and fanaticism to an extent rarely seen before in “authentic” programming. Real or otherwise, this is the most intoxicating world we’re likely to behold on screen this year.

Set at the sprawling Texas Renaissance Festival, Ren Faire tells the story of George C. Coulam, the festival’s octogenarian founder, owner, and “king.” Lord not only of TRF but of incorporated Todd Mission, Texas, Coulam rules all with an aging fist of iron. As the show opens, “King George” has become burdened by his crown and is looking to offload it onto one or more of his court jesters. 

HBO’s Ren Faire (HBO)

Will our protagonist really abandon his throne after a near lifetime of one-man supremacy? If so, which of the scoundrels at his feet will leap up to claim it? Like any good character study, Ren Faire offers multiple glimpses of fragile, grasping humanity. Among Coulam’s most devoted subjects is Jeff Baldwin, a small-time stage actor and entertainment director turned in-over-his-head TRF general manager. A fearful and reactionary figure, Baldwin hopes chiefly to seize the crown by proxy. Should Coulam retain ownership of the festival, Baldwin might rule in all but name, awarding his wife a permanent position but otherwise making no changes at all, forever. 

Opposing this unadventurous vision is “Lord of Corn” Louie Migliaccio, the festival’s popcorn impresario and resident Hunter Biden doppelganger. A trust-funded, Red Bull-guzzling former alcoholic, Migliaccio wants to buy the fair outright and seize the throne by force. (“I saw the crown of the Texas Renaissance Festival lying in the gutter,” etc.) Among his dreams for the fair’s future are “immersive technology,” a “Renaissance University,” and, dearest of all, the firing of Baldwin. To observe Migliaccio’s hopped-up wheeling and dealing is to be so powerfully reminded of the president’s son that one half expects FBI agents to seize his laptop. Then again, he really does have access to the $60 million that the fair is worth. Without question, Coulam and TRF could do worse. 

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Other characters arise to accompany this scheming duo. Vendor coordinator Darla Smith makes a play for power halfway through the series and may or may not live to tell about it. Baldwin’s wife, Brandi, emerges as the show’s one sane figure, gently cautioning her husband that King George is not the benevolent ruler some suppose. Yet it is Coulam himself who serves as the undisputed master of Ren Faire’s preposterous storylines. Autocratic, visionary, and distressingly bawdy, Coulam brings to mind both Montgomery Burns and Caligula. Observing a day in his life, one doesn’t know whether to tip one’s hat or wash one’s hands. 

Where to begin describing our outrageous protagonist? Coulam “moves you around as he sees fit,” one Todd Mission resident confides, invoking a chess board. His house contains shrines to Mother Earth, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and the Angel Moroni. He surfs “sugar daddy” websites with the help of a beleaguered aide, so intent is he upon finding a “companion.” After enlisting willing ladies, the 85-year-old hosts them at the local Olive Garden. 

An inveterate misanthrope, Coulam “suffer[s] from the gross inadequacies of the human race,” to quote the man himself. But he is also, after his own fashion, obviously brilliant. How many art graduates from Cal State Northridge can boast a net worth approaching $100 million? It is to Ren Faire’s great credit that the show never loses sight of an underlying reality: Bizarre though his behavior may be, Coulam really did build the largest Renaissance festival in the nation from scratch. 

Were Ren Faire a work of fiction, one would be tempted to read it as a knowing political parable in which Americans (Coulam) weigh both traditionalism (Baldwin) and utopianism (Migliaccio) and find them wanting. The series works best, however, as a commercial psychodrama with Renaissance characteristics. Not for HBO’s latest are the lawyers, conference rooms, and formalities that typically govern large-scale acquisitions. Instead, the show’s characters settle matters as they might have done in the court of Henry VIII. Case in point: When Baldwin wishes to sabotage Migliaccio’s purchase, he does so not with legalese but with an emotional appeal made directly to the throne. Alter the vocabularies slightly, but not too much, and we might be witnessing a quarrel between Thomas More and Cromwell. 

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The effect of all of this is wonderfully strange. So is the show’s editing, which takes a sharpened broadsword to the documentary community’s cinema-verite pretensions. In Episode 1’s last five minutes alone, we see Migliaccio’s head transposed onto the body of a jouster, a gaggle of leering peasants, and what appears at first to be Coulam’s death rattle. The explicit work of the scene is to show Baldwin receiving bad news. Its deeper purpose is to convince us of the stakes — and to bring the festival’s peculiarities to thrilling life. 

There is, of course, a certain archness behind these editing-room liberties. A production without a sense of the absurd would not show Baldwin hallucinating a dragon, as Ren Faire does on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, the series’s ambitions and dynamics remain convincingly Shakespearean. Not for nothing does Baldwin compare himself to Cordelia, King Lear’s tragic and faithful heroine. “I love your Majesty according to my bond,” that virtuous woman proclaims. As both Lear and Ren Faire make plain, love is a fine thing. But it isn’t nearly enough. 

Graham Hillard is editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a Washington Examiner magazine contributing writer.

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