In filmmaking, an assembly cut is when recent dailies are strung together in rough narrative order to create the first, very raw draft of the movie. Though it by no means lacks polish or editorial intent, Showtime's documentary series The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth is an assembly cut of what may prove to be this decade's most carefully examined dumpster fire: the 2016 presidential election.
Seventeen episodes have been broadcast so far between January and July, and new episodes resume on Sept. 11. Both the most Bernie-or-Busty Millennial on your Twitter feed and your septuagenarian uncle whose Facebook wall is a gallery of “Proof of Citizenship Should Be Required to Vote, Share If You Agree!”–type memes will find a lot to be interested in — assuming they’re interested in nuance beyond the flags they’re waving.
Every episode begins with its journalist and insider hosts enjoying a bite while discussing the ramifications of what that episode is about to cover, and then follows them as they bounce around the country, attending campaign events big and small and being allowed an astonishing amount of behind-the-scenes access. That’s The Circus’ true killer app: Its correspondents are known quantities who have working relationships with many of the major players on both sides. They have a point of view that, say, alt-right bloggers railing against Hillary’s Vagenda of Manocide lack.
The guides are John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, authors of 2010's Game Change (about the 2008 election) and hosts of the nightly Bloomberg/MSNBC yak show With All Due Respect; and media adviser and cowboy-hat model Mark McKinnon, who’s worked on campaigns on both sides of the aisle for people including but not limited to George W. Bush, Ann Richards and John McCain. MSNBC’s Alex Wagner also pops in on occasion.
When W. sees his old friend McKinnon at a Jeb event, he offers a warm hug that would make Olaf proud. Heilemann coaxing Bernie Sanders into doing a move called “the Monster,” which he normally reserves for playing with his grandchildren, is just about the most adorable thing you’ll see in a campaign season that has lacked in basic civility, never mind adorability.
The correspondents are, of course, human beings who can’t help but have opinions and feelings and biases, and they're not without controversy — Politico is not a fan of Halperin and Heilemann or With All Due Respect — and The Circus' attention tends to lean toward Trump because that’s the fireworks factory in this cycle, but there’s never a sense that the series is a lamestream media partisan hack job.
Speaking to "Trump confidante" Roger Stone, Heilemann begins, "To those who would critique the speech in the following way: dark, angry, pessimistic — "
Stone interrupts. "I don't agree with any of those,” he says. “We are in apocalyptic times. We do not have peace and prosperity. I don't think he came across as angry, I think he came across as strong." Then Stone, who worked in the Nixon administration and has a tattoo of Nixon's face on his back (f'reals, look it up), acknowledges that Trump's speech "did have certain Nixon ’68 qualities," which Heilemann treats as the enormous understatement that it is.
He's no more impressed by Hillary's speech the following week, however, as he, McKinnon and Halperin discuss it on the balloon-littered convention floor; looking more exhausted than anything else, Heilemann says, "Last week I said that Donald Trump gave a bad speech badly delivered; this is a mediocre speech mediocrely delivered." They do agree that it was the awesomest balloon drop ever, however. (Granted, Trump's balloon drop was clearly classier and more tremendous in every way, so maybe this is all a lamestream media partisan hack job.)
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It’s impossible for any half-hour show to capture everything of import that occurred over a week, and the show necessarily favors the places that the correspondents go, but that's also its advantage.
Take Halperin’s interview on Trump’s jet some seven weeks after the candidate called journalists dishonest, sleazy and not good people. It was his first interview after accepting the nomination, and professional journalist Halperin asked him to “clear up the confusion about" why he walked into the arena during the controversial speech in which Ted Cruz dared to suggest voting one's conscience: "Were you getting there to upstage [Cruz]?" To this Trump replied, helpfully rephrasing the verb, "Tweak him? I would never do a thing like that. But yes."
Setting aside the dishonest, sleazy and generally not-good tenor of Trump’s playground-bully response (it’s so typical of a failing alt-weekly to NOT GET SARCASM!), the interview took place on Friday, July 22, 2016; the quote appeared in an article on Bloomberg.com on Saturday; a four-minute excerpt from the interview was posted to The Circus' YouTube channel on Sunday; and the above-quoted exchange was broadcast that night in episode 16, “Trump Show.” Again, the primary source is openly viewable — and at the time of this writing, the full 22-minute interview is on YouTube and embedded on the front page of the show’s official site — but The Circus got there first, and it’s fascinating to watch the narrative be carved out of the chaos.
Being an assembly cut, The Circus will not be the definitive document of this campaign, though it does have a value that later, more thorough histories will not: It’s being made by people who, for all their experience with the intricacies of presidential campaigns, are as baffled as the rest of us and have no idea what the final act will be. After all, Ken Burns knew how the first Civil War ended.
The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth airs Sundays on Showtime.