Showtime’s "The Circus" Delves Beyond the Usual Three Rings of Politics

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That all-too-familiar feeling, a malaise born of disbelief, terror and fury, lingers. It would take political junkies of unprecedented appetites to not be exhausted from this presidential election, which feels like it started during the Paleolithic Era. Yet we must continue to monitor the news, given that our lives depend on it. To go deeper behind the headlines, Showtime’s The Circus: Inside the Craziest Political Campaign on Earth, now in its fifth season, has become Sunday night’s must-watch docu-series.

The half-hour segments average about 850,000 weekly viewers across multiple platforms, making The Circus the premium network’s top docuseries. Hosts John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon and Alex Wagner spend time with people we don’t often hear very much from beyond soundbites. Heilemann, national affairs analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, co-wrote the bestsellers Game Change and Double Down. McKinnon, a political strategist, worked with President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain. Wagner, a long-time journalist, currently writes for The Atlantic. They were joined this season by Jennifer Palmieri, who worked for President Barack Obama and on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Clearly, this group understands the political spectrum.

The series began by covering the 2016 election. Since then, as the country has grown increasingly more divided, it has also become more political. When this season began, on Jan. 26, the first voice heard was Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), urging defeat of the "most dangerous president in the modern history of this country." In the months that followed the number of Democratic hopefuls winnowed to one, and The Circus followed along the way. Are their questions tough? Absolutely, reflecting the questions any sentient person would ask, but they are not unduly tough on any one candidate. The show would no more fit on MSNBC than it would on Fox.

"I think of it as a weekly chronicle of American politics," Wagner says of The Circus. "There is nothing else like it on television. We are the only people really out in the field showing what is happening from the grassroots. So much political coverage is from air-conditioned offices on both coasts."

Before the pandemic, one of the show’s hallmarks had the three mainstays sharing a meal and chatting on every episode. They still eat and drink, now separately, as they go about looking at the news from perspectives glossed over elsewhere. Heilemann watching the first debate with President Donald J. Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon is a perfect example of letting a segment breathe and allowing viewers in on what would otherwise have been a private moment.

Just after the final debate, Wagner shared some of her thoughts with MediaVillage. As usual, she was on the go, this time in an airport heading home to her sons, one- and three-years-old, in New York.

"You could argue that I have been covering politics since I was in utero," Wagner says. (The true number is 17 years.) "I come from a very political family in Washington, D.C." This administration and campaign, as we are reminded daily, is like none other. Wagner considers what happens if Trump refuses to leave the Oval Office, given that he has repeatedly called into question the accuracy of next week's election as a hedge if he loses.

"I think we are engaged in a national fire drill around this election, and there is a lot of gaming out of disaster scenarios," Wagner says. "But I don’t think by any means it is a foregone conclusion that it will be a violent transfer of power or something that plunges us into a constitutional crisis."

Wagner recently interviewed the leader and other members of III% Security Force, an active militia in Atlanta. Rather than focus on a couple of sensational quotes, she listened closely to these well-armed individuals. They may come across as scary to many as they vow to defend themselves against all foreign and domestic enemies, but they do not come off as insane as they might be presented in other outlets. That is because Wagner connected with them -- not as an ally, but as an American and as a journalist.

"Those guys were all armed," Wagner notes. "I wasn’t worried about anything they would do. I had to figure out how to approach this on some level of humanity; to figure out how they think and what they think. There are blanket statements about certain people. And the job of The Circusis to get behind that and reveal political factions for who they are and what they are and remind us of our shared humanity. You need to have a conversation with them to understand."

These men and this woman are convinced that the only legitimate outcome of the election is Trump’s re-election. Whether anyone takes to the streets Nov. 3 -- and given the tumult of this year to date, it's unlikely the streets will stay empty -- there is going to be much to cope with after. The season finale is the Sunday after the election. (A sixth season has not been announced.)

"There is an open question of the legacy of Trumpism and what happens to America after Election Day," Wagner notes. "Trump and Trumpism have divided the country, and that does not heal up the minute he is not in office. Is there a possibility for a long-term fracture in American politics? Absolutely. These are deep breaks. In American society, we have to figure out how to heal."

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