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Campaign 2016: Three-Ring 'Circus' Ramps up the Spectacle as the Going Gets Weird
October 18, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

There aren’t many jobs out there where you can honestly say a hostile work environment is a good thing.

Little could Mark Halperin (top right), John Heilemann (top left) and media guru Mark McKinnon (top center) have known, when they broke ground on The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth late last year, that the going would get as weird as it has. Their catchall behind-the-scenes documentary series for Showtime about the 2016 election campaign has taken on a life of its own. They had no way of knowing, when they set out to make their documentary that the going would get as weird as it has.

And when the going gets weird, as the late media legend Hunter S. Thompson reminds us from the grave, the weird turn pro.

One wonders what the counter-culture contrarian and resident Rolling Stone media guru would have made of the 2016 election campaign, but sadly Thompson passed away in 2005 — a full three years before that fateful day in January 2008 when The Apprentice made its debut on NBC and made a household name out of a certain Donald J. Trump.

From The Circus’s debut earlier this year — eons ago, it seems now — it proved to be catnip for critics. The reviews weren’t just kind they were ecstatic. The Circus made political documentaries seem hip and cool again, in a way perhaps not seen since a young Robert Redford channeled future stardom in The Candidate in 1972 — the George McGovern years!

At the time, Michael Ritchie’s film felt more like documentary than the satire it was meant to be, which is just one reason why it won that year’s Academy Award for original screenplay. (The Candidate’s writer, Jeremy Larner, was originally a speechwriter for Sen. Eugene McCarthy, so he came by his insider political knowledge honestly.)

The Circus is real, though, not satire. As Showtime programming president Gary Levine told reporters at the semi-annual gathering of the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, Calif. in January, the filmmakers’ intent was to “find our own vehicle, one that would distinguish us both from the 24/7 cable news shows and the plethora of late-night news satire.”

What they got was a three-ring circus replete with freaks, geeks, and WikiLeaks, a horror show tailor-made for Halloween. It’s more frightening than anything seen in American Horror Story, if only for the fact that, as Real Time’s Bill Maher reminded his audience recently, “Welcome to another week of, ‘Yes, this is really happening.’”

That’s why The Circus returned unexpectedly this past weekend, unheralded and unannounced until the last minute.

Loyal Circus followers were treated to an outing in which Heilemann described the current state of Campaign 2016 as “a whole order of magnitude crazier,” as the political scene contemplates “the smoldering hellscape of a dystopian future.” Fun times!

As USA Today veteran Susan Page told Halperin and McKinnon in Sunday’s program, “I’ve covered 10 campaigns, and I’ve never seen anything like the last 48 hours.”

Of course, by now, that was more than 48 hours ago. The Circus is back this weekend, with more tales of the tape. “Seriously,” Heilemann said in Sunday’s program, “I feel like I’m caught in a bad acid trip.”

“You know what?” Halperin added. “It’s not even psychological warfare anymore. It’s warfare.”

Fun times!

The Circus’s early return highlights how relevant, and entertaining, the program has become in the weeks and months it has already been on the air — 22 frenzied episodes in all, so far.

At this rate, it’s not hard to imagine The Circus lasting beyond its Nov. 9 sell-by date, if only because a sequel is already in the works in real life — the turmoil facing the Republican Party if, as pundits are already predicting, there’s a three-way scrap over the party’s future direction in an ever-changing, increasingly multicultural society.

The Circus has proved valuable for reasons other than sheer entertainment value, though. The Oct. 2 show, titled “The Newsrooms,” showed in a way I’ve rarely seen in a mainstream TV program how the electronic media face an almost insurmountable task in focusing on the big issues while constantly having to react to tiny but important details in real time. The Circus’s cameras peered behind the scenes in the TV control booth during both the Republican and Democratic conventions, where the floor director has to decide in a heartbeat which camera focuses on which angry face in the crowd. There’s no room for policy discussion when Bernie Sanders people begin booing their own candidate when he throws in for Hillary Clinton, or when Donald Trump — remember him? — sails into the convention hall right in the middle of Ted Cruz’s stump speech. Trump glad-handing his adoring subjects while Cruz tells delegates to “Vote your conscience” is good TV, even if it isn’t particularly edifying or informative. The Circus is the big winner here, because Halperin, McKinnon and Heilemann can both appear above the fray while remaining a part of it.

After the unscripted frenzy of the conventions, The Circus showed the three gathered over coffee, wondering aloud: “What the hell just happened here?” and noting that, in all the smoke and mirrors, hardly anyone in the convention hall had said anything substantive about the collapse of the blue-collar, working class economy in the so-called Rust Belt; the implications of future appointees to the Supreme Court; the relentless carnage and destruction in Syria; the fight against climate change weighed against the economic imperative of protecting high-paying jobs in the fossil-fuel industry; and Russia’s rattling sabers in Ukraine, Crimea, the Baltic states, and the high Arctic. In the aftermath of the conventions, the big story about Russia was about how much they knew about an online hack of the DNC’s computer files, and when they knew it.

“Policy obviously matters to certain candidates more than others because it motivates them,” Heilemann told reporters back in January, “But this is the most extreme, intense, crazy competition that exists in the world, running for president. Right? You have these people who are some mixture of extraordinarily idealistic, extraordinarily vain, insecure, overconfident, charismatic, needy, all...rolled up into one, and they are all running for the most powerful office in the world under the most pressure and scrutiny you can imagine: physical, emotional, psychological, every other way. It's the hardest thing you could ever do as a human being. On another level, if you see them going through the rigors of this on a daily basis, the drama of it, the comedy of it, the pathos of it . . . people find that pretty fascinating. That’s our main focus (in The Circus). It's the high human drama and, sometimes, the high human comedy of what it takes to try to win the nation's highest office.”

Heilemann, Halperin and McKinnon have the advantage of hindsight, of course, and the fact that The Circus is reacting to events rather than reporting them live helps immensely.

The TV directors in the control booths behind the Republican and Democratic campaigns didn’t have that luxury. They knew there were bigger issues at stake than whether Trump’s campaign manager grabbed a reporter by the elbow a little too roughly at a campaign rally, but live TV, by definition, lives in the moment. Perspective and analysis comes later.

The Circus has done a terrific job of providing that perspective, without being pedantic or obvious about it. It’s more than a behind-the-scenes look at The Greatest Political Show on Earth. Many weeks, it has played like The Greatest Postgame Show on TV. Who knew talking heads could be so exciting, unless it’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

“[Trump] has done very little paid media,” Halperin told reporters back in January, belaboring the obvious.

Obvious, yes, but worth noting, and noting again throughout the campaign.

“He's using a lot of traditional media, very effectively, to get his message out. And in television, in presidential races, that so-called earned media or free media is worth a lot more than the ads are. That’s the only thing that’s fundamentally different about all the things Trump has done. Win or lose, I think people are going to write Ph.D. dissertations about it one day.”

Perhaps more than just Ph.D. dissertations, if history has its way.

The last word in Sunday’s program, as has so often been the case, belonged to Trump:

“It’s a crazy world we’re living in!”

And how.

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Mark Isenberg
I have not watched the Circus as I avoid Showtime,a Sumner Redstone-CBS cable profit center. But,I know of Mr. Halperin from years ago on ABC where Chris Matthews also toiled in obscurity. He brings sober reflection but not much light to any forum be it Morning Joe and is just another media hack kind of like Mika and Joe now have become. Enjoy the Circus but I know how it ends and am not a big fan of C-Span endless speech coverage on Road to the White House 2020 edition starting real soon,either.
Oct 18, 2016   |  Reply
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