The first of its kind, a real-time political reality show about the 2016 presidential campaign, premiered last night on Showtime. It is aptly named: “The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth.” And its main characters could have sprung from the mind of a Hollywood scriptwriter. The show’s weekly airing places us by their side as they run a brutal campaign marathon that concludes on Election Day, November 8.
The potential influence of The Circus stems from the fact that it offers a perspective not normally seen in day-to-day news coverage. The show strips away the artificiality and usual talking points, giving viewers a sense of what it is really like to run for president.
What makes The Circus so watchable is the show’s trio of three distinguished producers: Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, and Mark McKinnon. Their roles are as large as the candidates’, and their frequent on-camera narration drives the story. All three exhibit endearing, fun, low-key, intelligent humor, leavened by an occasional snarky side, evident in a “we’ve seen it all, so nothing can shock us” attitude.
Together, their presence keeps the show flowing with a calm consistency while the fast-paced candidate action jumps around to scenes all over the country: a small gathering at a Christian bookstore in Iowa (Cruz), a large rally at an arena in Florida (Trump), a restaurant dinner with the producers in New York (Sanders), a chat on a campaign bus ride in Iowa (Cruz), or a live interview with Halperin or Heilemann on a TV-news set.
The producers’ confident, experienced demeanor gives viewers a sense of assurance as they pull back the curtain to reveal what a political campaign looks and feels like from the inside. The result is a highly entertaining 30 minutes, edited to accommodate short attention spans so that even people who aren’t political junkies will find it amusing. Which of course is exactly why The Circus is airing on Showtime.
Who are these producers taking us to The Circus?
Anyone who follows politics is familiar with Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, co-authors of two bestselling books about the last two presidential campaigns, 2008’s Game Change and 2012’s Double Down. For their day jobs, both are managing editors of Bloomberg Politics. There, they host the nightly political talk show With All Due Respect, which airs weeknights at 5 p.m.on Bloomberg Television. Starting in 2016, the show also re-airs at 6 p.m. on MSNBC, in what was formerly Al Sharpton’s time slot. In addition, the show airs on Sirius XM radio’s POTUS Channel 125, at 6 p.m. Those who closely follow politics might agree with my assessment: With All Due Respect is the smartest political show in the entire media jungle.
The premiere of The Circus was notable for how it blended With All Due Respect seamlessly into The Circus. More cynical viewers and others in the media will no doubt criticize the pair for blatantly promoting their nightly political news show on their new weekly show. But The Circus is being produced “in cooperation with Bloomberg Politics,” so it’s all part of the package. The combo makes for a perfect fit that works surprisingly well and even feels humble.
Halperin and Heilemann are two highly respected, talented reporters at the top of their game. Weekly, they now have the opportunity to bring to the small screen, in real time, the 2016 presidential campaign, offering the same insider’s vantage point that made Game Change and Double Down such gripping reads. They both have a knack for asking candidates thought-provoking, creative questions that virtually no one has ever thought to ask.
Mark McKinnon, the third producer, developed the show concept. He brings to the project an entirely different on-camera vibe and his own unique skills, honed in his years of presidential-campaign combat. Most famously, he was the media strategist who helped George W. Bush win in 2000 and then again in 2004. McKinnon also worked as a media strategist early in John McCain’s 2008 campaign. Later, he served as a McCain adviser who, among other things, was tasked with helping Alaska governor Sarah Palin prepare for her vice-presidential debate. (Game Change chronicled McKinnon’s role.)
The Circus’s biggest challenge will be making sure the show doesn’t turn into a rehash of week-old cable-news footage. But if the series continues to be as strong as last night’s premiere, it will make Americans feel better about the dramatic and grueling process that forges our presidents. Each episode of Circus, every week from now until November, may well give Americans a better understanding of what democracy demands of our candidates. And if the show gains ratings momentum, then The Circus could have a real impact on the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign.