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Review: HBO’s ‘Ren Faire’ A Docu-Fantasia Full of Power Struggles

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“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That quote, coined in the late 19th century by English historian and politician Lord Acton, would serve as a perfect tagline for the upcoming three-part HBO docuseries Ren Faire by director Lance Oppenheim. The first hour of the limited series, what Oppenheim describes as a “docu-fantasia,” premiered at SXSW 2024 and will turn up on the Max streaming service, according to the director, sometime this summer. 

HBO’s Ren Faire series described as a “docu-fantasia”

The “fantasia” part of the docu-fantasia comes in the form of Oppenheim breaking down the wall between reality and fiction by adding stylistic elements that externalize the psychological states of his subjects. At one point, we see a man praying to three statuettes that represent his religious beliefs. Oppenheim then cuts to close-ups of the statuettes, adding ethereal, barely audible voices that respond to the man.

To cap the episode, people surrounding another character, who is attending a Renaissance festival in Germany, taunt the man following his receiving devastating news from back home.

King George and the Texas Renaissance Festival

Ren Faire focuses on the Texas Renaissance Festival, the renaissance fair with the largest annual attendance in the United States, located in Todd Mission, northwest of Houston. To give you an idea of what a big deal this place is, the creator and sole owner of the operation, George Coulam, incorporated the town of Todd Mission because his fiefdom had grown so large, he needed an official bureaucracy to handle the logistics of his empire. In addition to running the Ren Fair, he also serves as the town’s mayor.

We meet Coulam, known simply as King George to anyone with any proximity to his power, as he is contemplating the end of his reign. Entering his late 80s, King George is on the cusp of giving up his empire in search of true love. Or lust. In one interview segment, Coulam expounds on the wonders of the drugs Viagra and Cialis, and how, if taken properly, they can give a man consistent erections until the day he dies. He then waxes poetic about the best way to go, in the sack, enjoying the pleasures of a woman’s touch. 

Oppenheim then cuts to King George’s personal assistant, in the style of The Office, to catch the poor woman with a look of bewilderment on her face at having to hear all this. It’s a funny moment that got big laughs from the SXSW audience, but, to me, all I could think about was if it would be as funny if this man wasn’t an octogenarian. 

Oppenheim spoke after the screening about what a treasure trove interviews with King George provided. Since this man is so accustomed to people walking on eggshells around him, the documentary crew, who saw the aging millionaire as merely a person instead of as an all-powerful ruler, got pure, unfiltered access to his thoughts because, Oppenheim surmised, of his loneliness and desire to connect with other people.

Sherwood Forest Faire: Come Find Your Fun

Sherwood Forest Ren Faire

King Lear-inspired power struggles at the Renaissance faire

Power abhors a vacuum, and over the course of the first hour, we meet two men who are desperate to fill the one that will be created when King George (who served as the actual King character in his renaissance festival until he became too busy) steps down. 

The first contender is Jeff Baldwin, the General Manager of the fair. Having worked his way up from entertainment director to GM, and involved in one way or another with King George’s brainchild for over four decades of his life, Baldwin feels he has earned the coveted role of successor. 

A challenger to Baldwin’s plans comes in the form of Louie Migliaccio, the King of Corn, as the documentary labels him. Migliaccio is the head of the kettle corn operation that supplies the patrons of the fair with popcorn treats each season. The brash youngster (by the standards of this melodrama) has some bold ideas to expand King George’s Renaissance fair empire for the enjoyment of the public, and, not inconsequentially, to make even more money for himself.

In one crucial scene, Baldwin speaks with his wife, Brandi (whom he elevated to acting entertainment director when he ascended to General Manager) about the juicy role of King Lear. Baldwin was an actor before dedicating his life to the Texas Renaissance Festival, and talks of using method acting for a role in the play Daddy’s Dyin’ Who’s Got the Will? because his own father died during rehearsal.

HBO's Ren Faire 2024
Image from Ren Faire (HBO/’Elara Pictures)

The story of King Lear is an apropos comparison to make with the machinations we see in the first hour of Ren Faire. Oppenheim assured us at the Q&A, this only ratchets up as the series continues. Baldwin expresses frustration to Brandi because King George has been using a certain word more frequently as of late: nepotism. Baldwin’s liege is adamant, as he makes clear in an interview segment, that nepotism is never to be allowed. That’s partly due, he says, to ugly experiences he had in the early days of the fair. He sees Baldwin’s promotion of his wife as a fatal error in judgement.

The Baldwins, however, see more nefarious sources for King George’s recent fixation. They never say who, but Oppenheim deftly cuts to Migliaccio in the next sequence to underscore the point. The quirky nature of these characters and (sometimes unintentional) comedy also brought to mind the 2017 farce The Death of Stalin, in which the soviet dictator’s aspiring heirs make hilarious moves to secure their own power in the aftermath of Stalin’s demise. 

Final thoughts on the opening episode of HBO’s Ren Faire

There are plenty of heartfelt moments to complement the comedy in Ren Faire. It’s heartbreaking to watch Baldwin browbeat his wife into admitting that King George is the source of everything good in their lives. He also speaks with frustration about how former GMs were axed after taking a personal vacation, meaning they must take care not to make the same mistake. Baldwin has dedicated his entire life not only to the Renaissance festival, but to King George’s honor and every whim.

One darkly comedic segment shows Baldwin trying to stop online mocking of George when memes of a statue dedicated to the man turn up with references to, one of the fifteen (!) dating sites that King George is subscribed to in the search for a mate. 

This first episode of Ren Faire sets the stage for a dramatic power struggle over the course of the rest of the three-part series. Oppenheim uses a clever mix of verité and fantasy to make this droll little dramedy (which, to be clear, has millions of dollars at stake) sing.

Oppenheim’s 3-part docu-fantasia Ren Faire will arrive on HBO/Max later this year. Do you plan to watch it? Let us know what you think about it on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.

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Josh Thayer

Josh Thayer has been writing as The Forgetful Film Critic since 2014 and is a member of the North Texas Film Critics Association as well as the Online Film Critics Society. Website:

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