Has there ever been a better time for American political journalists? Think about it: Of all the times in history to be eating, sleeping, and breathing politics, today’s electoral process wonks get to do it during the tail end of the first African-American presidency and the beginning of the most bizarre primary fight in the commonwealth’s history. Showtime picked a fine time to wade into the fray with The Circus, its as-it-happens political docuseries starring Bloomberg Politics honchos Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and noted Republican pollster Mark McKinnon. The Circus is an elegant, intimate, frequently funny look at a process that lives up to the show’s title, but like most political coverage these days, leaves a brutal hangover.
Halperin and Heilemann aren’t quite new to premium cable, having written the exhaustive account of the 2008 election cycle that led to HBO’s Game Change, but The Circus puts them in front of the camera as they zig-zag across the country, dropping in on rallies, caucuses, and town halls to capture the political zeitgeist. It has the feel of a documentary assembled after the fact, but The Circus is still in production, and its heroic post-production team assembles the show mere hours before it airs on Sundays. The most recent episode, which chronicles the fallout within the GOP following Donald Trump’s Super Tuesday triumphs and the widening schism in the party, is a great example of just how close The Circus cuts it. The episode, appropriately titled “The Reckoning,” includes not only the Super Tuesday results, but the subsequent Republican debate, Mitt Romney’s speech calling for Trump’s ouster, Trump’s controversial decision to break his date with the CPAC conference, and even the results of the primaries and caucuses held the Saturday before it aired.
Halperin and Heilemann, beltway journalism’s version of renegade buddy cops, make excellent tour guides. Their access to the campaigns and candidates is remarkable, with the sole exception of recent conceder Ben Carson, who is conspicuously missing from The Circus, and Trump, who hasn’t offered anyone that kind of access. The rest of the candidates, along with their family members and staffers, offer glimpses into their off-stage personas that are as close to candid as an American politician is liable to get when a camera is still pointed at them. In one episode, Bernie Sanders’ wife Jane recalls her husband’s decision to run: how they went to a local diner to eat and talk through the ramifications of a potential presidential run, only to encounter a tearful constituent with a personal testimony ready to be dropped into a stump speech as is. Sanders is so likable and approachable in The Circus, the footage could easily double as a warm and fuzzy campaign video.
As intriguing and funny as the backstage interactions with the candidates can be, there’s only so much value in them because the cycle is still in full swing and they can only be so transparent. Halperin and Heilemann made names for themselves with exhaustive, post-election rundowns that rely on background interviews with unattributed sources, many of which aren’t granted until after the election. When The Circus focuses on the candidates themselves, it can feel like a trailer for the far more interesting and in-depth story Halperin and Heilemann will be able to tell once the cameras are off.
But the show is lively when it’s focused on the supporters and the political operatives milling about in the shadows. In “The Reckoning,” Heilemann watches the most recent GOP debate—the one in which Trump gave an indirect shout out to his penis—from the CPAC convention Trump later decides not to attend. It’s a fascinating sequence that captures just how sharply divided conservatives are as they grapple with a candidate who is becoming too big to fail and too terrifying to succeed. In one scene, Halperin and McKinnon have lunch at a D.C. chophouse with a group of men who represent the Republican establishment and let them duke it out over how Trump can be stopped, if he can at all, and whether a Trump presidency or a Hillary Clinton presidency represents the lesser evil. It’s reminiscent of HBO’s one-season political drama K Street, which achieved the same look and tone but blurred reality and fiction too frequently to be of any value.
The Circus’ biggest weakness is its biggest strength. The Republican primary race has become too riveting to pull away from, even at its most distressing, so it’s no wonder The Circus tilts so heavily in its favor while Clinton and Sanders remain substantively dull. But the consequence is a program that plays more like a high-stakes reality show, more interested in chasing the most scintillating conflicts than illuminating the issues underlying the rancor. If the GOP continues circling the drain, The Circus could become essential television. The mere thought of an episode inside the first brokered convention in more than a half-century is enough to hope the party continues at its current pace. But because there’s a presidential election at stake, it’s hard to root for the drama as if The Circus is a Real Housewives spin-off. The show is at its best when national politics is at its worst.