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Rock stars of punditry John Heilemann and Mark Halperin break away from armchair Trump chatter on 'The Circus'

Rock stars of punditry John Heilemann and Mark Halperin break away from armchair Trump chatter on 'The Circus'
John Heilemann, left, and Mark Halperin, are back on Showtime with "The Circus: Inside the Biggest Story on Earth," examining President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

As if Sean Spicer's daily press briefings weren't entertainment enough, there's now a reality television series about our reality star president's first 100 days.

Filtering the business of politics and government through a lens once reserved for behind-the-scenes looks at celebrities and sports stars, Showtime's "The Circus," now subtitled "Inside the Biggest Story on Earth," is back for a second season.

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Hosted by political analysts John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the show, which premieres Sunday and will run for at least six episodes, aims to set itself apart from the armchair commentary of cable news and political talk shows with actual on-the-ground reportage. Each week the "Circus" team will shadow and interview politicians, policymakers and their constituents, providing an insider angle into the events and people driving the news cycle in Act I of the Trump White House.

President Trump meets with leaders of historically black colleges in the Oval Office on Feb. 27. It went viral as the "Kellyanne Conway on the couch" meme.
President Trump meets with leaders of historically black colleges in the Oval Office on Feb. 27. It went viral as the "Kellyanne Conway on the couch" meme. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP/Getty Images)

It's the latest addition to a growing number of shows that are weighing in on the political process and the presidency, turning politics and government into something more entertaining than the serious business it is — or at least was thought to be. An electoral system whose machinations were once thought to be about as exciting as an educational film are now the stuff of binge-worthy television, and at least one scripted drama about the 2016 presidential campaign is already in the works for HBO.

Halperin is the buttoned-down pragmatist to Heilemann’s more passionate approach. Together they’ve created a small empire.


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What TV's fetishization of the Beltway says about the state of our democracy is the subject of much hand-wringing — Washington has gone Kardashian! — but it could also signal that viewers are looking for less alarmist, more curated interpretations of an increasingly contentious and unpredictable political scene. Whatever the reason, the appetite for political TV seems insatiable.

"SNL" hasn't had a bad night since the inauguration; according to NBC the show has had its strongest ratings performance since the mid-'90s. Stephen Colbert has his political edge back and now has more late-night viewers than the blander Jimmy Fallon. And when ABC's "black-ish" re-created the stunning upset of election night in a recent episode, it went down as one of 2017's best scripted-TV moments, with a reviewer from the Atlantic calling it "Art for the age of Trump."

President Trump is, of course, the latest and most powerful accelerant for ratings. As a font of colorful material that deviates from the usual wonkery of past administrations, his presidency is unparalleled. But his campaign and election are only the latest iteration of what has been a programming trend.

John Heilemann of Showtime's "The Circus: Inside the Biggest Story on Earth."
John Heilemann of Showtime's "The Circus: Inside the Biggest Story on Earth." (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

You could argue some cable providers gave [Trump] too much airtime, but front-runners get more airtime.


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Other election aberrations that became cable hits include HBO's "Recount" (a 2008 drama about the 2000 Bush/Gore recount) and "Game Change" (a 2012 drama about the ill-fated 2008 Palin/McCain campaign), as well as the 2014 Netflix documentary "Mitt" (about Romney's run for president). Charismatic leaders like President Obama and Sarah Palin are natural stars, with institutional dysfunction, hanging chads and too-close-to-call races serving as their costars.

"The Circus" debuted last year on Showtime as a highly rated docu-series that took viewers through the weekly madness of the 2016 presidential race. Episodes jumped between candidates and scenes from the trail — on the plane with Sanders, on the tarmac with Clinton supporters, on the bus with Rubio, backstage with Trump.

When the race ended, the show, which then carried the subtitle "Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth," was supposed to end as well. Or so its creators thought. Then a funny thing happened after the election; the lunacy didn't stop, so "The Circus" rolled into Washington.

"The circus is in D.C., but it's also all of Donald Trump's America, the whole spectacle," says Heilemann, who co-produces the show with Halperin and Mark McKinnon, a former George W. Bush adviser. "It's right in the wheelhouse of what we tried to do last season — pull back the curtain and show the sort of story behind the headlines and the human drama of what goes on in the political work."

Cataclysmic event

Heilemann and Halperin have spent the past three decades covering campaigns, dating back to Bill Clinton's. Heilemann was a journalist with New York magazine; Halperin was a political analyst and correspondent for ABC news.

The duo, both in their early 50s, recently wrapped up their irreverent, daily Bloomberg show "With All Due Respect." They also authored bestselling books together such as "Double Down" and "Game Change," the latter of which was the basis for the cable drama. Their forthcoming book has already been optioned for another HBO production.

As a team, Heilemann and Halperin appear regularly on the late-night TV circuit, as well as MSNBC and various other panels discussing the Hill and its players. They're political analyst hybrids whose smart takes on those in power and their policy are often fun and flippant yet packed with experiential knowledge. Halperin is the buttoned-down pragmatist to Heilemann's more passionate approach, and together they've created a small empire.

They are rock stars of the political punditry world, a distinction that has brought them both critical kudos and sharp jabs, the praise for making a painful election year palatable and somewhat sane with reportage rather than hyperbole, the criticism for being part of a media pack that turned a crucial part of the democratic process into absurd spectacle.

A Vox reviewer described "The Circus'" depiction of the race as a "framing of politics as a reality show or sporting event, rather than a sober choice citizens must face."

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Another common refrain: They were part of a ratings-obsessed media who helped legitimize Trump by giving him more airtime than other qualified candidates.

Mark Halperin of Showtime's political series "The Circus."
Mark Halperin of Showtime's political series "The Circus." (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

This is not a show about issues. A lot of Americans follow government through the personalities, character and behavior of their elected leaders.


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"I'm not going to answer for CNN and others who decided to indulge every speech [Trump] made on the campaign trail," said Heilemann. "But the reality is, Donald Trump was the front-runner for the Republican nomination practically from the moment he got in the race. You could argue some cable providers gave him too much airtime, but front-runners get more airtime. The reason he was the front-runner is because he had a television show on network TV that 25 million people watched. This is a famous rich guy who entered the race with a huge amount of advantages. The fact they gave him a lot of attention … doesn't surprise me."

The new season of "The Circus" faces challenges that it didn't on the campaign trail.

The pace is still manic — each show jumps off the week's events, meaning each new episode has to be identified, shot and edited in the span of five to six days for a Sunday broadcast.

But it's access to Trump and his Cabinet that may prove the biggest obstacle this time around.

Trump has said or tweeted he's now in a "running war" with much of the mainstream media for the "dishonest," "disgusting" and "corrupt" coverage of his first weeks on the job. The attention he once sought on the campaign trail has turned to animosity toward the press.

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So how will they get the same sort of behind-the-scenes footage that set "The Circus" apart from other forms of traditional media last year?

Stay tuned, says Halperin.

"We're going to rely on the same things that we relied on for access in the campaign and for our books," he says. "We've both been doing this for more than a quarter century; just as we have relationships on the campaign trail, we have relationships in Washington. We're confident we'll be able to take [viewers] into rooms and behind doors that will bring the current story to life the way we did during the campaign."

Halperin's tone when discussing the Trump presidency wasn't quite as measured on election night, when he and Heilemann were guests on Colbert's live Showtime special. When it became clear Trump had staged one of the biggest upsets in modern election history, a stunned Halperin said: "Outside of the Civil War, World War II and including 9/11, this might be the most cataclysmic event the country's ever seen."

John Heilemann, Mark Halperin and Stephen Colbert during Showtime's "Stephen Colbert's Live Election Night: Democracy's Series Finale . . ."
John Heilemann, Mark Halperin and Stephen Colbert during Showtime's "Stephen Colbert's Live Election Night: Democracy's Series Finale . . ." (Scott Kowalchyk / Showtime)

Perhaps covering a presidential race like a season of the "Amazing Race" had helped put an entertainer into the White House.

The entertainment quality of "The Circus" isn't something its hosts apologize for.

"We hope the new season [of 'The Circus'] is entertaining, just as all content I produce I hope is entertaining," says Halperin. "That's our aspiration. This is not a show about issues. A lot of Americans follow government through the personalities, character and behavior of their elected leaders and people running for office. So we're trying to bring alive the personalities of the people we're telling the stories of. But this is not entertainment."

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