The Circus bosses on tackling the Trump era, 2020 election in Showtime docuseries
Hosts and executive producers John Heilemann, Alex Wagner, and Mark McKinnon preview season 4
When The Circus first premiered, the American political landscape was a wildly different place.
The Showtime docuseries was created to focus on the 2016 presidential election and aired from January to November of that year, leading up to the now infamous election that saw Donald Trump defeat Hilary Clinton. The Circus returned for a second season in 2017, with the series evolving to focus on Trump’s first 100 days in office. And then, after scandal hit, season 3 returned in 2018 to cover the run-up to the midterm elections without Mark Halperin, the former MSNBC host accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Ahead of this weekend’s season 4 premiere, The Circus hosts and executive producers John Heilemann, Alex Wagner, and Mark McKinnon sat down with EW to preview what’s changed about the series once more as the 2020 election looms.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A lot has changed in the political landscape since The Circus premiered, before Trump was elected, so how has that changed the show?
JOHN HEILEMANN: This is the fourth season of the show, and a lot has changed and a lot hasn’t changed. We started in 2016 covering the presidential election, and by the time we started Donald Trump was in the race. The main factor that has driven a lot of the unpredictability and intensity and craziness of our politics in this period was already present for us. It’s always a challenge doing what we do, which is doing a real-time documentary week by week where we go in the room not knowing what we’re covering, and then producing a 30-minute documentary every week essentially on the fly. That’s been the challenge from the beginning, and I’m not sure if it’s really all that different from before. What’s different is that for most people in the country who were engaged with politics to varying degrees is that the presence of Trump, whether you love him or hate him, has pushed the stakes, raised the stakes for what people think is on the table for politics. The level of interest is higher, and the people who look at the 2020 election, which is what we’re about to cover, there’s just an incredibly intense amount of interest and fascination with it because people feel like there’s a lot on the line.
MARK MCKINNON: One of the things that’s changed is that this was initially conceived to just be a show about a campaign. We thought we would maybe come back in 2020 and then realized one week into this administration that the interest level across the board in politics has just risen exponentially in this country. I was initially skeptical about doing it out of Washington. It’s not nearly as cinematic as running around the country during a campaign. But in fact, I was wrong! People are super-interested in what’s going on across the ideological spectrum — whether you’re a Trump supporter or somewhere in between. We get in input from junior high and high school teachers saying, “Our kids are watching your show,” just because there’s so much interest in it. That’s really what changed, the interest in politics.
What’s the balance between covering the day-to-day news vs. the upcoming presidential election?
ALEX WAGNER: The focus of the show is the high human drama of American politics, and I think that nowhere is that drama more pronounced than on the campaign trail. You’re going to see a lot of 2020 coverage. That happens to be driving the news cycle as well, so I don’t think there’s as much of a choice. The bigger question is, given the fact that there are 20-odd Democrats running and one Republican, how do you make sure that you’re covering everything that you need to be in 30 minutes of a TV show that covers Monday-Sunday of the news cycle? That’s the challenge for us every week, but this season in particular that feels pointed given the amount of content we are going to have to sift through at the end of every week.
MCKINNON: You’ve got the campaign going on, you have other things going on in Washington, but once we’re in the campaign season, that’s almost always about the campaign anyway. So we’re going to cover what’s in Washington when it’s newsworthy, but for the most part that’s going to be news that directly related to a re-election effort. But there will also be real news that’s breaking, and we’ll be there.
Now that news cycle has changed from 24 hours to almost hourly, how does that affect your week-to-week schedule in producing each episode?
MCKINNON: Part of the reason why this show works is that there’s a heightened level of interest, but people can’t sit and watch cable news every day, 24 hours. What they’re looking for is something that’s a synthesis of the week, what was important when all this information is out there, and we just digest it into a 30-minute version that’s serious but is a documentary. It’s a way of condensing everything that happened in this tumultuous news cycle that we have. Because people get confused! So much happens. “Wait a minute, what should we take away from this week?” That’s part of what we do. But it’s a challenge because stuff will often break on Friday that we have to get in our show.
HEILEMANN: The minute-by-minute news cycle creates an extraordinary amount of ephemera, just a lot of stuff that happens that people will light their hair on fire and it doesn’t matter two weeks later. It’s just Donald Trump throwing shiny objects around and people chase them. We all suffer from, especially in the Trump era, information overload. People care about the country and care about politics, they need some help about what should I pay attention to, what’s important, what’s ephemeral? What we’re trying to do every week is tell a story, but within that also condense and distill the stuff that matters so that if you were out of the country for a week and you came back and watched The Circus on Sunday night you can be like, “Okay, I got it. That’s what happened this week.” People like to be told stories and people like focus and clarity, so if we can do those two things, then we’re in service for people who are often overwhelmed by how much is going on.
WAGNER: And we’re doing it in a way that’s not just a bunch of people sitting in a studio offering talking-head analysis. You’re seeing it in the field with candidates in a way that you don’t see it anywhere else.
How do you plan to combat the fatigue that many people are feeling when it comes to politics at such a crucial point in our history when we need to be informed more than ever?
WAGNER: We are a show that is by nature political, but we are not like any other political show on television. You’ve seen the devastation of local news, you’ve seen networks cut back on their field operations — we’re one of the only places that goes into the field with the candidates behind the scenes to show people what’s actually happening in American politics. That is especially needed right now. As much as we are a part of the story, we aren’t the story. The story is what’s happening in the field with the candidates and the voters. That’s something we need more of in this particular moment in American politics.
Going into season 4, what has been your biggest challenge as you prepare to start filming?
HEILEMANN: The biggest challenge is, if there’s 20 presidential candidates, who do you shoot with? What’s the story you want to focus on? And all of that is even before you get to Donald Trump and what he’s doing in the White House or out on the campaign trail. The logistical challenge for us is one of the great challenges we face no matter what: The more candidates there are, the more events that are happening, the greater our logistical challenge becomes. By the time we start there may be fewer than 20, but at least for this fall we’re going to have an abundance of candidates, an abundance of stuff going on. Which is great because the more there is to shoot, the better off we are, but at the same time we have to make some choices and we have to live with the consequences of those choices moving forward.
MCKINNON: More often than not, the three of us don’t know where we’re going to be tomorrow.
When it comes to making those choices of who and what to cover, how do you make sure to keep your personal bias out of the storytelling process?
WAGNER: I don’t think bias comes into play when deciding who is making the most news and where is the center of gravity in terms of American politics. That’s not bias so much as judgment. No one has a crystal ball, and no one can predict who is going to make the most news that week.
MCKINNON: We just have to use our decades of experience covering campaigns, trying to determine what’s important for people to know. Is it the shiny object or something deeper? The reason that it’s the most-watched unscripted show on the network in the network’s history is that we make a discernible, considerable effort to present all sides. We want it seem like it’s fair and that we’re not putting our thumb on the scale. We have our own personal histories, but it’s a documentary. Our idea is not to push our ideas but rather to hold a mirror up to everything that’s happening.
The Circus season 4 premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on Showtime.
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