Spoiler warning: Showtime‘s The Circus launched with a title that suggested politics infused with a bit of crazy spectacle, but it ended tonight with a bit of fretfulness and even a sense of dread for what’s ahead.
The show wrapped up after eight seasons in an opportune week: Donald Trump testifying in his civil trial, off-year elections that saw some unexpected Democratic wins, a Republican debate that may ultimately prove to be irrelevant.
But what stood out were a series of interviews from figures across the political spectrum — which has refracted quite a bit since The Circus debuted. The show reflected the precarious state of politics, driven largely by the rise and endurance of Donald Trump and the reaction against it.
Steve Bannon, appearing in a contentious interview with co-host John Heilemann and guest host Tim Miller, declared that “President Trump is a moderate in our movement. You are going to pine in future years that you wished Donald Trump was around.”
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, in an interview with co-host Jennifer Palmieri, talked of the growing concerns over violent rhetoric and actual violence in politics, pointing out how state Republican leadership has declined to condemn those involved in a plot to kidnap her.
Democratic strategist James Carville, following an interview with Heilemann, afterward sent him a text message that read, “We in a business we love, and that other people hate. Hope our chat can help people understand why this sh– is important. I am scared man. Very.”
Co-host Mark McKinnon told Deadline that the intent of the episode was to “We really wanted to try and figure our a way to wrap it all up, and so kind of the theme of the week was, what have we seen over these eight years? … So wanted go back and sort of say, ‘What of has been the arc history during that period. It’s of course the rise of Trump and MAGA and then the rise of the resistance to push back on that.’”
McKinnon said that “the best thing that happened to The Circus was our timing. We just caught lightning in a bottle. I pitched the show for 10 years and it just happened to get greenlit before that 2016 election.”
The show featured a compilation of moments over the past eight seasons, to the sound of Talking Heads. There also was an appearance by former co-host Alex Wagner, although not from former co-host Mark Halperin, who was replaced amid sexual harassment allegations. Former Showtime chief David Nevins, a longtime champion of the show, showed up as the show was being edited in New York on Saturday night, with the episode completed at about 3 a.m. this morning, McKinnon said.
But the past season highlights were used sparingly in favor of the purpose of the show itself: To offer a documentary style take on the week’s worth of political events, interspersed with figures who can offer a bit of analysis and perspective.
Bannon, who thrives on giving the media shocking pronouncements and bombastic declarations, did not disappoint.
At one point, Miller pointed out a recent story about a MAGA lawyer who identified the top five priorities for another Trump presidency, including firing the “deep state” executive branch, indicting the whole Biden family, deporting 10 million people, detaining people at Gitmo, pardoning every January 6th defendant. “What do you think about that five?”
“I think it’s fantastic,” Bannon said. “We are going to start the largest deportation program in history.”
For Democrats, Whitmer gave her road map for winning, as she said, “When we lead, we make people’s lives better. I think that is going to be really important as we talk about the threats to our democracy and our fundamental rights.” But she also warned of the state of politics, telling Palmieri, “This is an existential moment.”
For his part, Carville gave little solace to Democrats worried about Joe Biden and his age amid dismal polls. “Democrats think he’s too old,” Carville said. “You can’t deny that. All of these polls — it’s like walking in on your grandma naked. You can’t get the image out of your mind. It sticks with him.”
For those worried about 2024, about the future and about democracy, perhaps the biggest sense of hope out of the episode was that politics has become so much more unpredictable in the past eight years. All the forecasting about a Biden vs. Trump rematch ignores that so much will happen in the next year to change that dynamic. As McKinnon said, “Time after time after time, we have been shocked and surprised, and of course, that has made for incredible drama for our show.”
As for what he foresees at this time of anxiety and angst, McKinnon said, “As I say in the last scene, I am a prisoner of hope.”