Alex Wagner, John Heilemann and Mark McKinnon in 'The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth' (Showtime)

‘The Circus’ is the ‘Inside the NFL’ of News

It is no exaggeration to say that over the last couple of years, even in the age of Peak TV, the news has become the most interesting thing on television. But, as with the glut of Peak TV prestige dramas, it often feels like there is too much for a normal person to absorb.

The idea of a weekly news digest is not a new one, but The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, which after a pause just resumed its third season on Showtime, has a flavor all its own. Think of it this way: if your typical news show is like an NFL Postgame Show — clips of the game with commentary by in-studio talking heads who have some experience with the game — The Circus is more like Inside the NFL, with the cameras on the field, in-game audio of the players, and a much more filmic look.  Hosts John Heilemann, Alex Wagner, and Mark McKinnon — two political reporters and a former political strategist — enjoy access to the halls of Congress, the White House briefing room, and anywhere else our elected officials might be found, for what feels like a much more on-the-ground, real-time look at the big stories of the week.

The most recent episode, “Judgment Day,” focused entirely on last week’s controversy around the confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and while we all saw the highlights (such as they were) from the total-saturation news coverage in real time, here we see those moments — such as the moment where a pair of female protesters confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator — from literally another angle. The show captures the frantic life of reporters on the political beat as they swarm Senators in in the hallways, as they drive across D.C. obsessively glued to their phones for the next development, as they board planes to grab quick interviews in hotel rooms with newsmakers, such as the first TV interview with Kavanaugh accuser Julie Swetnick and  her attorney, so-called “Creepy Porn Lawyer” Michael Avenatti. Heilemann presses Avenatti on the way Swetnick’s allegations are likely to be challenged by Kavanaugh’s defenders — The Creepy Porn Lawyer is just looking for more headlines — and gets an interesting, unfiltered reaction from Avenatti.

Or the episode that aired just before the show went on hiatus, “Our Brand Is Crisis” — so chock-full of story that it was expanded to an hour from the show’s usual 30 minutes. President Trump had pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and his controversial CIA Director pick, Gina Haspel, went before Congress for her confirmation hearings. Both stories are well covered, but it’s the time that Heilemann spent with Avenatti just before, during, and after his revelation (via Twitter) that Trump attorney Michael Cohen had taken money from a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, both before and after then 2016 election, that gets the most play, and rightly so, because it’s fascinating both to see a seasoned reporter like Heilemann hear the information for the first time, to see the gleam in Avenatti’s eye as he promises that the story is solid and will be confirmed, and then to see that play out in (truncated) real time: TV pundits and politicians hearing the information for the first time, reacting, and then Avenatti’s reaction to their reaction.

Heilemann, along with his cohosts, former MSNBC host Wagner (a welcome and far more charming replacement for Heilemann’s former writing partner, Mark Halperin, who lost the gig to some creepy #metoo allegations) and longtime Republican strategist/Stetson enthusiast McKinnon, have been in this game a long time and are on a first-name basis with most members of Congress, so they are able to get a lot more unguarded on-camera moments than most TV journalists. Likewise, they move easily in journalistic circles as well, with insightful interviews with leading reporters, pundits, and hosts. If you’re a news junkie, it’s more than a worthwhile addition to your media diet.

New episodes of The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show in Earth air at 8pm ET Sundays on Showtime.

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