The Circus, the Showtime docuseries that presented the chaotic world of politics in a weekly narrative, is ending its run after eight seasons and 130 episodes.
The show, with regular host correspondents are Mark McKinnon, John Heilemann and Jennifer Palmieri, will have its final episode on Sunday on Paramount+ with Showtime and Showtime linear.
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The Circus is ending just on the cusp of the 2024 presidential cycle, in what might be a fight-to-the-finish rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the latter of whom is likely to spend the better part of the year in court facing criminal charges.
The show’s hosts haven’t foreclosed the possibility of continuing on another platform, but they gave credit to Showtime for embracing the idea for The Circus and staying with it.
In an interview, McKinnon noted that the show, which launched in 2016, “was designed to be one and done. … So this show has gone on seven more seasons than we planned.”
Said Heilemann, “We all just feel really blessed for having had the chance to do it for as long as we did.”
He said that Showtime gave them “an extraordinary amount of freedom to make a really ambitious show that almost no one else would touch.” Heilemann added that there “are not a lot of entertainment entities that are set up to accommodate that kind of speed and flexibility and had the kind of trust that Showtime always had in us to do something that was such a high-wire act.”
Palmieri said that the show proved that “you can tell a compelling story that matches the seriousness, the gravity of the political moment, but you can also do it in a way that has compelling cinematography, compelling storytelling.”
The series featured interviews with Trump, Biden and many other political figures, but the hosts note that the point of the series was not to present a “get” of the week. With the tagline, “Inside the greatest political show on Earth,” The Circus aimed to bring the candid feel of a traditional political documentary to a weekly format, meaning a quick turnaround given the pace of breaking news during the past eight years.
As for standout episodes, McKinnon pointed to one, Season 3’s “The Looking Glass War,” in which the show traveled to Russia amid rising U.S. tensions and more revelations about Vladimir Putin’s disinformation efforts. It featured Heilemann’s interview with a woman who infiltrated the infamous Internet Research Agency. McKinnon also pointed to examples like Wagner’s sit-down with a Loudon County, VA, GOP women’s club president on critical race theory as the type of revelatory interview with someone who is not a big name.
The show faced a breakneck production process, often with each episode finalized in the wee hours of Sunday morning, less than 24 hours before its debut on Showtime. One particular challenge was the episode that aired after the January 6th attack on the Capitol, with the decision made to expand to an hour given the events of the week. “It’s always a close call because we are really crashing every single Saturday with a lot of footage, dealing with a lot of change every single week,” Heilemann said. “When large news events have happened, it’s an extra challenge, especially when they happen later in the week.”
Palmieri noted that Jordan Klepper, who has made several appearances, “described the show as moving through uncertainty with a lot of confidence.” The trio also credited the post-production team with helping to pull off very tight deadlines.
The biggest shakeup on the show happened in 2017, when EP and host Mark Halperin was dropped amid allegations of sexual harassment. Alex Wagner, who had contributed to the show, was brought in as a regular host.
“In the inception of the show, the goal was never to have three old white guys as the hosts,” McKinnon said. “The ambition was always to be more diverse, have a different cast. We had had our eyes on Alex Wagner before this stuff with Mark happened, and when she came in, people thought it was because of Mark, but it was really planned well before that.” Wagner departed last year when she joined MSNBC’s primetime lineup.
Heilemann said that a legacy of the show has been making something “that is not just high quality but also is also hopefully good for an environment that is kind of starved of context, of factual accuracy. We live in an age of misinformation, disinformation. I like to think that you’re contributing positively to a precarious information ecosystem.”
Palmieri said that campaigns “understand that we are people that understand what it is like behind the scenes, and that we wanted to portray things as they were actually happening . … I think we managed to capture, no matter what side of the aisle we were on, candidates’ humanity, and let it speak for itself.”
She pointed to one moment in 2021 when when the show went to interview Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and he spent more than an hour getting his tractor to pull their production vehicle out of the snow.
The three hosts do plan to remain engaged in the coming cycle, in what McKinnon said is “stacking up to be one of the most remarkable years in history.” Heilemann is national affairs analyst for NBC News and MSNBC; McKinnon and Palmieri and longtime political strategists.
“We’re going to be very engaged in watching, commenting on the political scene, one way or the other over the course of the next 12 months,” Heilemann said. “And … as to the future of The Circus, stay tuned.”
The Circus is produced by Left/Right for Showtime, with Heilemann, McKinnon, Palmieri, Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman, Tom Johnson and Divya Chungi as executive producers. Politico first reported on the show’s conclusion.
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