'The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth': TV Review

THE CIRCUS Showtime documentary series: John Hellemann, Mark McKinnon and Mark Halperin
Scott Everett White/SHOWTIME
The reality show that is the 2016 presidential race is now a reality show for real.

Showtime's weekly reality series goes behind the scenes with the presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

Since the current presidential race has come to resemble a reality television show, why shouldn't there be one based on it? That's presumably the theory behind Showtime's new weekly series produced in cooperation with Bloomberg Politics and featuring its managing editors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann as well as veteran campaign strategist and media advisor Mark McKinnon. Providing a behind-the-scenes look at the candidates on the campaign trail, The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth should prove catnip to political junkies.

The Outsiders, Sunday's premiere installment (the series will deliver half-hour installments until November's election), began with — who else? — Donald Trump. As well it should, since the billionaire tycoon has come full circle, from being a reality TV show star to a politician to now being a reality TV show star again. Unlike the episode's other subjects, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, the Republican frontrunner didn't deign to be interviewed. Instead, there's footage of a massive Trump rally in an arena in Pensacola, Fla., packed to the rafters with his screaming fans. It's noted that Barry Manilow will be performing a concert in the same venue a few weeks later.

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The bulk of the episode concentrates on Cruz and Sanders as they trudge through Iowa trying to rustle up votes in the upcoming caucuses. Cruz, traveling on a motor coach dubbed "The Courageous Cruzer," is in the midst of a tour of 28 counties. He's seen schmoozing with voters in a diner, schoolhouse and Christian bookstore, thereby demonstrating the absurdity of our political system in which the potential leader of the free world is apparently obligated to personally meet every one of that state's citizens.

Sanders' low-key, down-home campaign approach is illustrated by his arrival via Amtrak at NYC's Penn Station to deliver a speech at Town Hall. The ensuing interviews with him and his wife, Jane, reveal a personal side to the cranky senator, such as her account of their mutually deciding for him to enter the race during a breakfast at Denny's that was interrupted by a veteran thanking him for his efforts.

When asked by Heilemann if he wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about the campaign, Sanders humorously replies, "I wake up in the middle of the night…often to go the bathroom." He also dutifully performs the scary monster imitation that he uses in front of his grandchildren.

Halperin and Heilemann, authors of the best-sellers Game Change and Double Down, certainly know their stuff, even if they inject themselves a little too enthusiastically into the proceedings. And the grizzled McKinnon, a veteran of five presidential campaigns, lends a knowledgeable insider's perspective.

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Observing Cruz's expert performance in front of an evangelical crowd at the Christian bookstore, he comments, "If there were people who went in undecided, I think they ended up buying the goods."

Featuring footage from the GOP debate held just a few days earlier, The Circus clearly intends to be timely. And there's no reason to think that they'll have any shortage of juicy material to mine in upcoming months.