Showtime’s ‘The Circus’ Producers on Returning to Chronicle the Chaos of the Trump Era

The Circus Review 2016 Campaign Series
Showtime

When Showtime’s “The Circus” returns for a new season on Sunday, its producers say it will still have the candid, documentary feel of its first season.

But as it switches its focus to the beginning chapter of the Trump presidency, what it won’t have is the easily discernible, start-to-finish narrative of a presidential contest.

It’ll be up to them to define the story arcs.

“[We] are living with a president who is behaving in novel, unprecedented, and for half the country, in really upsetting ways, and he’s doing it on this incredible hyperdrive,” says John Heilemann, who, along with Mark Halperin and Mark McKinnon, are the show’s principals.

“It is happening incredibly fast. You are getting stories now that are the kind of stories that in previous administrations would have been wall to wall media coverage for a week or two weeks. We are getting sometimes two or three of those a day right now. So I think the biggest challenge for us right now is we have an abundance of riches in what to cover.”

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The show made a mark last year for replicating the feel of a campaign documentary but producing it in a more immediate time frame, unfolding over 26 weeks during the election. They also followed it all up with the feature-length “Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time,” which debuted at Sundance.

Showtime has picked up at least six episodes of the show, which will retain its production schedule: A weeklong production followed by a tight editing turnaround, usually finishing on early Sunday morning the day it is shown.

Heilemann, Halperin and McKinnon each appear on the show and serve as executive producers.

McKinnon said that even before the election was over, they had talked of extending the series, perhaps to a foreign election or an off-cycle election. But after one month of the Trump presidency, he said, it was clear that “the circus hasn’t stopped, so the show must go on.”

“Everybody is absolutely transfixed by what is going on in Washington, no matter which side of the spectrum you are on,” McKinnon said, adding that the show can act as “tour guide” for what has been happening in D.C.

Halperin said that “as the first season went on, we started talking to Showtime about various ways to take the kind of heart and soul of what we were doing with ‘The Circus’ in terms of production and ethos and apply it to other things. The best fit in the short term at least was the start of the Trump administration.”

The show plans to focus not just on the White House but Capitol Hill, Democratic opposition, and the grassroots outside of D.C.

During the campaign, Halperin landed interviews with Trump, including one on Trump’s plane just after the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Access to the White House, however, is a different thing, what with new levels of security and greater layers of gatekeeping. Robert Drew famously got his filmmakers fly-on-the-wall access to John F. Kennedy’s administration, and the result were movies like “Primary” that are records of history. That was more than a half-century ago — and a much different era.

McKinnon said that while access will be more difficult, “We will find a way to tell the story.”

“What we will get will be different from what everyone else does,” he said.

They won’t say what is in the works for the first episode of the new season, but there are plenty of hints.

According to a White House pool report on Wednesday, Halperin and “The Circus” crew were spotted on Air Force One as Trump trekked to Detroit. Halperin also posted a photo to Twitter in which he and McKinnon were staked out in the cafeteria of the Congressional Budget Office on Monday, when it released its assessment of Congressional Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

They also don’t believe that they will be hindered by Trump’s relationship with the media, which has deteriorated since he took office. He often rails about “fake news” and called certain outlets the “enemies of the American people.” That has generated a lot of pushback from journalists, including those who see the administration as trying to undermine the credibility of news outlets.

“It is a storyline that we need to cover, and as members of the press we need to defend our place in a democracy,” Halperin says. “But some of our colleagues have made the mistake of personalizing this, or making it a distraction from our core mission. The press has been attacked by every president I have covered, and while Trump’s rhetoric has escalated above what we have seen in the past, it is really not our job to be fighting with the people we cover. Our job is to protect the public interest and explain what is going on.”

Heilemann thinks that it is “unhealthy and unwise and unmerited” for Trump to be “attacking us and our colleagues in that way. That said, the press right now is flourishing. People right now are doing some of the best work we have seen in years, at the Washington Post, at the New York Times, on television.”

Just this week has seen the angst over the proposed Obamacare replacement legislation, a judge’s decision blocking the Trump administration’s travel ban and Rachel Maddow’s release of two pages from the president’s 2005 tax returns. By Friday, there could be a whole new set of storylines.

“One of the things that has been true of the first 50 days of Donald Trump’s administration is that the unpredictable, unusual, unprecedented happen on an almost hourly basis,” Heilemann says. “So we don’t think there’s any virtues in over planning this.”

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