“I’m worried about your arteries,” a viewer tweeted at the hosts of Showtime’s political documentary series “The Circus,” devoted to coverage of politics in the Trump era. “You might want more veggies.” The show’s mission is to offer viewers behind-the-scenes footage of political action in the byways of Washington. But it also serves as an excuse for the hosts to eat something fried and drink something brown in every casual dining restaurant in the city.
Like the burgers and steaks and nachos and pizza the presenters constantly consume, the show is delicious political comfort food — but doesn’t deliver much lasting nutritional value.
The premiere of the new season, which airs on Sunday nights, is a case in point. Set up with burgers and beer, the hosts discuss the political moment, diagnosing it as an “earth-shattering, tectonic plate-shifting, epochal kind of cataclysm.” After this first course of hyperbole sandwich, the episode features a tasty interview with President Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. Exiled following an epic fallout with the president, Bannon is now back on Team Trump.
John Heilemann, the watchable host, puts it to Bannon that recent revelations about the president paint him as unfit, unstable and a liar. “You make that sound pejorative,” Bannon responds. Bannon shows Heilemann scenes from his new movie, “Trump @ War,” a work so sycophantic that Heilemann calls it “a cinematic reach-around.”
Whatever its flaws, “The Circus” at least now comes in bite-sized servings of eight or so episodes per run. The first season, with its 26 episodes, felt as interminable as the 2016 primary and general election campaigns that it covered. The reportorial strategy adopted by Heilemann and his then co-host, Mark Halperin, was modeled on the pair’s gossipy books about the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns: Follow the candidates around, paint mini-portraits of their personalities, and show how they respond to the absurdities and indignities of the American electoral process. It’s a journalistic style pioneered by Theodore White and taken to creative heights by Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Crouse and, with most literary merit, Richard Ben Cramer. Thompson said these books were about finding out “what it was like to scramble in the bowels of a U.S.A. presidential campaign.”
Yet on “The Circus,” Heilemann and Halperin didn’t add much new insight; the first season often seemed like a clip show from that week’s cable news. It has since emerged that they were saving their most salacious discoveries for a planned book on the campaign, one now mired in acrimony since more than a dozen women accused Halperin of sexual harassment and he acknowledged “aggressive and crude” behavior.
As a result, the first season was mostly a recitation of campaign cliches — a candidate has “the big mo,” former president Bill Clinton is the “big dog” — occasionally enlivened by the unpredictable maneuvers of co-host Mark McKinnon’s ubiquitous white Stetson, rising and falling in and out of shot like a shark’s fin. “Where’s your hat?” Jeb Bush asked McKinnon at one point, staring at the bareheaded host. It was in McKinnon’s hands.
That 2016 season had a hell of a twist ending, and juxtaposing Trump’s victory speech with R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” was a clever outro.
“Are you guys still filming this thing?” asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at the start of the next season, but “The Circus” became a better show once freed from the constraints of covering the campaign. One particularly effective episode is set in Russia, where Heilemann becomes ensnared in an exhausting disquisition on the nature of truth with a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman and visits the Internet Research Agency made famous by Robert S. Mueller III.
There is also a fun half-hour spent with Stormy Daniels’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, at the height of his Trump-baiting fame. The pugnacious Avenatti defines his strategy for taking on the president: “I haven’t let somebody take my lunch money since I was 7 years old, and I’m not going to start now.” In a nicely composed scene, Avenatti and Heilemann are shown in a hotel room as Avenatti tweets out damaging information about Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen. Heilemann then gets Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani on speakerphone to complain about the tweet while a tickled Avenatti tries not to laugh out loud.
Now that it’s back to cover the midterms, one hopes that “The Circus” sticks with its themed episodes rather than sinking back into horse-race campaign cliches. For serious analysis on the art of running democracy, stick with The Monkey Cage. But its occasional inventiveness makes “The Circus” a tasty enough way to consume our current politics.
Stephen Benedict Dyson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and a contributor to The Monkey Cage.