It looks like HBO wants to get on Management's good side: The cabler is thisclose to renewing its deliriously addictive — yet modestly rated — Depression-era freak show Carnivale for a second season. "Barring disaster, which means the ratings falling off a cliff, we should be getting a pick-up [any day now]," exec producer Daniel Knauf tells TV Guide Online. "We have every expectation that we will be back."

Not bad for a series many in the media were quick to dub a disappointment. After a strong start, Carnivale's ratings tapered off, a development insiders blamed on the drama's slow pacing and increasingly complex mythology. But in terms of Internet traffic, Carnivale is nothing short of a phenomenon. Viewers have been jamming the show's official site at HBO.com in record numbers, picking apart everything from Ben's creepy dreams to whether Management is a He or a She. And the millions of fans who stuck by Samson and his band of merry misfits were rewarded with one payoff after another, culminating with Sunday's action-packed season finale (9 pm/ET).

"With storytelling, if you want to get the ball rolling, it's got to roll slow at first," Knauf explains. "I'm really happy that HBO was willing to weather those slings and arrows, because there really is no way to write this kind of epic without laying a lot of pipe at the top. Nobody liked to do it, but we knew we had to do it so it would pay off later on. But it's insanely risky when you're breaking a series to a new audience and it's not like, 'Bing, bang, boom!'"

That said, Knauf promises a faster pace — as well as a handful of new Carnies — when Season 2 kicks off in early '05. "It's going to move at a nice clip," he says. "I would say that the last three episodes are a pretty good estimate of where we're gonna be at from the standpoint of pacing next year."

But don't look for that long-awaited showdown between good (fugitive Ben) and evil (Brother Justin). Not next season anyway. "That's pretty well down the line," he says. "That's our endgame. The whole story is building toward that." Instead, Knauf teases that "elements" of their worlds will begin to collide in Season 2. "But Brother Justin and Ben having a light-saber fight? That won't happen."