tv review

Who Is The Circus For?

The Circus co-host Mark McKinnon. Photo: Larry French/Larry French/SHOWTIME

On Sunday night, Showtime’s The Circus leapt into the fray of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation drama with characteristically dry, detached aplomb. The notable event of the episode was co-host John Heilemann’s interview with Julie Swetnick, a woman who has accused Brett Kavanaugh of being present while she was drugged and gang-raped at a high-school party. For what appears to be a scarce few minutes in a public airport terminal, Heilemann asks Swetnick about her story. She did not intend for this to be an eleventh-hour accusation, she tells him. Kavanaugh should not be a Supreme Court justice, she adds. Someone with that history should not have the power to make decisions about women’s lives. She very much hopes there’s an investigation into Kavanaugh’s past.

This is a review of The Circus, but it’s also, inevitably, a story about the news. In moments like Heilemann’s interview with Swetnick, it’s useful to try to extricate the one thing (the news) from the other (how The Circus presents the news). That second part is just as appealing as it’s always been. The docuseries’ presentation, its signature shots of lovely food laid on a table to be devoured by hungry political commentators, its insider-access aesthetic, its immediacy, its familiarity, the casual closeness with its hosts and guests: All that stuff helps set The Circus apart from the mannered, stiff, “many talking heads yell at one another” model of most TV news. Let’s not obviously perform for a camera, The Circus says. Let’s just be people, covering the news.

As befits the show’s ethos, the introduction to the Swetnick story is John Heilemann walking into a nondescript chain hotel in Alabama, where her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, is frantically trying to find a way to print out a Microsoft Word document containing her sworn statement. Swetnick is upstairs, Avenatti tells Heilemann, but she’s still debating about whether she wants to sign the statement and she’s not sure she’s ready for a conversation yet. Avenatti gives Heilemann the statement, and he sits down in a corner of the hotel lobby and begins to read it aloud. “I witnessed efforts by Mark Judge, Brett Kavanaugh, and others to cause girls to become inebriated and disoriented so they then could be ‘gang raped ’… in approximately 1982, I became the victim of one of these ‘gang’ rapes.” As Heilemann reads from the paper, the camera is positioned behind a partition so that his face is partially obscured. It creates the impression that we, the audience, are looking in on a private, intimate scene. We are gaining access to a secret.

It looks like a secret. But it’s footage of Heilemann, one of the three hosts of this Showtime docuseries, reading a statement given to him by a lawyer for public consumption. He could have read that same statement sitting behind a desk in a studio, or standing in front of a carefully selected background while holding a mic in his hand and staring straight at the camera. The Circus packages this as an elite, private bit of information, while also showing us footage of Avenatti tweeting an image of Swetnick along with the same statement Heilemann just read.

Last Wednesday, anyone with internet access could’ve seen that same image of Swetnick and read that same statement. How much does it matter that you can see Avenatti compose the tweet on The Circus on Sunday evening, if you already read the tweet days earlier? How much does it matter that you can watch small snippets of Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher facing down Jeff Flake in an elevator on Sunday’s episode of The Circus, if you already saw the viral footage of that same event within hours of its occurrence on Friday? (Especially if the viral version is more complete and has a wider frame so you can see more of the scene?) How much does it matter that you can watch a half-hour summary of the week in politics, when we’re living in a time when anyone with any interest in politics at all is so tuned to breaking news that every hour feels like a week, and every week feels like a geologic era? I don’t know, and it means that I’m not entirely sure who The Circus is for.

But I enjoy The Circus. I have liked it since it first premiered in the run-up to the 2016 election, back when it was following Republican presidential candidates. I liked it when Mark Halperin was one of the hosts and I didn’t know any of the rumors about him, long before he admitted to sexual misconduct and was fired from the show. I liked it back when I was more naïve about the cynical emptiness of horse-race politics coverage. And The Circus is unquestionably better now. In the three episodes aired since its return this fall, it’s been more focused on balancing punditry with a depiction of current protest movements. New co-host Alex Wagner is a welcome break from the too-familiar visage of bland white dudes. It’s worth noting, however, that although The Circus wants to seem casual, it’s not interested in introspection. At no time does it delve into the self-reflection of any parallels between Kavanaugh and, say, its former host Mark Halperin.

Still, I like the aesthetic and The Circus’s implicit “inside the journalism” point of view. It’s shot and framed as though you, too, are a reporter standing in a crowded Senate hallway thrusting your recorder in the direction of some unremarkable elected representative, yelling, “What do you think about Rubio’s comments this morning?” That same framing feels a little silly when it’s Heilemann sitting by himself reading a sheet of paper aloud for a camera, but it works well when it’s used to show us more unusual perspectives. It’s great when it’s showing us embattled swing vote Senator Lisa Murkowski gesturing to the mob of reporters to move aside because she’s afraid someone might get hurt. It’s fantastic when it’s used to show all the faces of the protesters outside the Capitol — men holding “Stand with Brett” signs, women with in black with tape over their mouths — being pulled away by the police. But in spite of its impressive access and slick visual identity, I’m not sure what The Circus adds to our understanding of current events or the way the news cycle works. If anything, being forced to relive an entire week’s worth of news compressed to a half hour feels like it should come with a trigger warning, particularly after the exhausting last few weeks.

However, one segment in these three episodes suggests the show’s potential. When Heilemann talks to Steve Bannon, a powder keg of an interview if ever there was one, he needles the former White House adviser again and again, rather than simply nod and listen. “Jesus, gimme a break,” Heilemann scoffs, when Bannon tries to insist that Trump is actually very intelligent. The interview (and the pro-Trump film that Bannon just made) are merely efforts to get back in Trump’s good graces, Heilemann says aloud, pinning the motive on his subject. Bannon does not deny it. Heilemann calls Bannon’s film a “cinematic reach-around,” and if Bannon has a retort, The Circus does not include it.

It’s the one moment from these three episodes of The Circus that feels new, like a useful contribution to the cultural conversation rather than a pleasant chitchat about previously known quantities. Heilemann does a seemingly impossible thing: He conducts a good interview with Steve Bannon. But it happens on a premium cable docuseries, presumably watched by political junkies who aren’t ignorant to Bannon’s strategy, so the question remains: Who is this for? I don’t know the answer. But if the show ever figures out how to anchor its aesthetic to something more solid, it has the potential to jump from a pretty-looking news recap to an illuminating documentary.

Who Is The Circus For?