‘The Circus’ Shouldn’t Have Needed a Second Season, But: Trump; There It Is

By  · Published on March 21st, 2017

The show can’t help but go on.

If there is one show from last year I didn’t expect to see renewed for a second season, it’s The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. Unlike neatly wrapped programs like Stranger Things and Fleabag, Showtime’s documentary series seemed to have a guaranteed stopping point. The Circus began with the intent to follow the 2016 presidential race, through the analytical coverage of John Heilemann, Mark Halperin, and Mark McKinnon, from the road to the Iowa caucus to Election Day.

Even while everything about the content of the show was insanely unpredictable, one thing was certain: the series finale would be the November 13th episode responding to the results of which candidate won the White House. The Circus was categorically a limited series, and as such was even nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award. It also spawned a nicely condensed and conclusive feature documentary that premiered at Sundance this year titled Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time.

In the era of President Donald J. Trump, though, nothing is as it should be. This week, The Circus returned for a second season, and I admit I somewhat jokingly asked for it. Technically, I called for something related from the same people, maybe another “limited series,” not necessarily a second season under the same title:

Trump hadn’t even become president yet, and I knew there’d be a lot of stuff to digest once he was in the Oval Office. Just as I appreciated The Circus summarizing and analyzing the events of the election as it went on, I knew I’d like a similar program doing the same for the events of the Trump Administration. More than any presidency in my lifetime, this was going to be one I needed to pay regular attention to. It’s true, for better or worse, that Trump’s actions command viewership. And there’d be much to watch.

“I do get good ratings, you have to admit that,” Trump can be seen saying at the end of a montage recounting his first 52 days in office near the beginning of the season premiere of The Circus — which is now subtitled Inside the Biggest Story on Earth. And it’s obvious that Trump’s oft-repeated claim is the very reason the series is back. We do have to admit that he’s a rating magnet, even if much of that is people hate-watching and/or out of fearful curiosity rather than from those who like what he’s saying and doing.

The Circus will continue to get good ratings because it will never run out of crazy Trump content to feature, and as Halperin says in the season premiere, “In Donald Trump’s Washington, every week ends on a cliffhanger.” Besides that reasoning for the series to continue, there’s the idea that it must still go on because the election itself didn’t quite end last November. Trump keeps on campaigning, holding rallies and constantly bringing up why he’s better than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, despite having won and been sworn in.

A Call for More Immediate Cinema

At the same time, however, the election does continue to be under scrutiny, with an investigation ongoing to determine if Russia meddled with the democratic process and whether or not anyone in the Trump camp colluded. Although we could tune in to the hearing on the matter yesterday and can follow Halperin (who was recently made senior political analyst for NBC and MSNBC) and Heilemann throughout the week in their various other platforms, it will be nice to have their and McKinnon’s weekly commentary.

And if they can get the kooky, fascinating, and terrifying character that is consultant Roger Stone back on, all the better, though he’s under particular examination right now for his ties to Russia. Stone was an occasional guest on The Circus last year ‐ and is featured in Trumped ‐ and offered a number of quotes that were prescient and are retrospectively of importance now. The Russia issue isn’t new, of course, and if you weren’t watching the series during its first season, there are some relevant episodes worth checking out.

The Russia story will be the big focus of the next episode, for sure, unless anything else of greater note happens between now and Saturday. That’s the thing about a series like The Circus ‐ and actually, I’m not sure there is anything else like The Circus ‐ is its makers never know what each episode is going to be until the weekly window is closed mere hours before an edited product has to be ready for broadcast Sunday night. For a description of what the production and editing is like each week, I recommend Heilemann’s interview by Thom Powers on the Pure Nonfiction podcast:

PN 36 - John Heilemann on "Trumped"

Surprisingly, the Circus gang do appear to plan stunts every once in a while, as if in the possibility that there will be a need for filler. Even when there’s not the need, though, things like this week’s stakeout of the Congressional Budget Office and the season one visit to London’s Embassy of Ecuador, where Julian Assange currently resides, do manage to find a slot. I’m not really always a fan of that Michael Moore style stuff with this series, as it feels less organic.

With its second season, it’s less predictable how and when The Circus will end. According to the announcement of the second season last month, the current run is focused on Trump’s first 100 days in office. That would presumably mean they’re only doing seven or eight episodes, as the president’s 100th day will fall on Saturday, April 29th. Compare that to 26 episodes last year. Of course, for many people, there’s hope that Trump won’t even last that long. The way things are going, it’s not unthinkable.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.