The merit of “The Circus,” the show of a broken Washington

We are living in something of a moment for political journalists in America. As Steven Perlberg brilliantly laid out in a recent Buzzfeed News report, the constant drumbeat of the Trump crisis has created folk heroes out of the reporters who cover the administration. From Perlberg:

Blessed with a TV news presidency, CNN and MSNBC are entrenched in an arms race to land “contributors” exclusive to their airwaves. Book publishers and agents are searching for the next Fire and Fury. And print reporters — used to a workmanlike life behind the scenes even on a high-profile beat — have been cast as celebrities of #TheResistance or visible villains trafficking in Fake News.

It takes little more than a cursory glance at Mark Leibovich’s This Town to know that Washington has always been a self-obsessed place where social capital among reporters and lanyards is tremendously important, but the endlessly surface-level political age we have entered means that the stars of Washington are now becoming stars of America as well.

In other words, we are living in John Heilemann’s America.

Heilemann’s best known work—a series of gossipy campaign books written with now-disgraced journalist Mark Halperin—laid the groundwork for this moment in Washington. His work made characters out of his sources, creating elaborately engaging narratives out of Washington with often questionable legitimacy. They are the junk food of political journalism: accessible high drama with the policy details of a campaign sanded over.

His and Halperin’s foray into documentary television, The Circus (now in its third season on Showtime), took that project and expanded it further inward. No longer just passive narrators, The Circus casts Heilemann and his co-hosts (No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon and the newly-added journalist Alex Wranger, subbing in for a ghosted Halperin) as the stars of a frantic weekly documentation of what’s happening in American politics. Along the way, they are joined by “newsmakers” who appear in what are essentially cameos; a recent episode featured Heilemann breezily hanging out with Stormy Daniel’s lawyer as he tweeted about Michael Cohen’s alleged payments from a Russian oligarch before joining Wranger and Roger Stone for a combative yet friendly dinner at a trendy New York restaurant. It represents everything wrong with the way Washington media prioritizes drama over context. Despite that, there’s an uneasy appeal to The Circus, but acknowlegding this requires a disappointing acceptance that its view of politics is essentially the status quo.

Just don’t expect much depth. Heilemann and friends are clearly focused on the optics of the week’s news. There’s endless talk about the shockwaves Trump is sending through Washington and the country as a whole, but almost entirely through the lens of communication. Subjects like immigration and tax reform are distilled to where it fits in on the elaborate scoreboard that journalists like Heilemann construct. The world outside of Washington is viewed as something like a focus group: are Trump’s supporters still in his camp, even after the Russia and Stormy Daniels “bombshells” the show seems so obsessed with? A season premiere trek to Russia becomes suddenly jarring when Heilemann interviews a Russian who worked in a social media content farm. Heilemann asks her what it is like living in Putin’s Russia and for that brief moment, The Circus seems more interested in what it is like to live in a world effected by politics rather than a world reacting to politics. This is fleeting, and by next week we are back to hurried taxi rides through Washington and analyzing negotiations with nuclear powers as a chance for Trump to get a “win”.

It’s easy to view The Circus’s existence as a testament to how utterly fucked our media is when it comes to handling this political moment (and that would be a valid critique!), but the dirty secret is that its also an incredibly engaging show. The mere fact that it exists is a production feat: a week-to-week documentary that somehow feels frenetically dense but also dramatically produced. The travel schedule the producers keeps seems utterly grueling, but it allows the co-hosts to jump across the country—often multiple times—in a single episode. The access is also impressive; a large number of political figures pop up every week for interviews. (Serving as one of the earliest poster children for access journalism nets you a pretty decent contact list.) In other words, The Circus is exciting, a slickly produced, globe-trotting adventure that Heilemann and his team take the audience on every week, impressive just in its existence.

But—fundamentally—nothing that’s happening right now should be exciting in the way The Circus is. We are living in an incredibly unstable time. Bottom-feeding trolls like Roger Stone should be cast out of political discourse for their decades of sin, not given a dramatic slow-motion introduction to an interview that ends with Heilemann remarking on how much fun he had. Having fun ingesting a political moment that is leading to an insurgent far-right and families broken under the boot of an authoriarian task force feels like a fanciful privilege for a viewer. But for a journalist–who is leading a show that almost completely ignores these issues in favor of glitzy interviews with friendly sources–viewing this as fun is infuriating.

At the same time, access journalism and the celebrification of American political media is a Pandora’s Box that likely will not close anytime soon. Until that day happens—god willing it will begin with a purge of cable news—there is value in seeing what matters to the Heilemann’s Washington bubble. And The Circus certainly delivers a captivating window into what matters for the nightmarish blob that is insider Washington. Just don’t get too comfortable with it, because if there is any justice in this world, the blob’s days are numbered.

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