NEW YORK – What does “The Circus” do when the circus has left town?
That's the pithy question that comes to mind upon learning that the Showtime political series opens its seventh season on Sunday, when consumer interest in political news has dropped sharply with the end of Donald Trump's presidency.
“The thing about the circus — there's comedy, there's drama and there are death-defying acts of physical daring,” said John Heilemann, one of the show's four reporters. “Those things are still in our politics and we think the drama of American politics is ever-present, has not receded in any way and is just as compelling.”
There was no thought given to ending “The Circus” just because one big story had changed, he said.
Heilemann, along with Mark McKinnon, Jennifer Palmieri and Alex Wagner, guide viewers through the three rings each week, explaining the nuances and meaning of political stories. Heilemann spent time in California this week covering Gov. Gavin Newsome's recall election, while Palmieri probed vaccine politics in Arkansas.
Americans followed political news like entertainment in 2020, much less so now. So far this year, for example, prime-time viewership is down 33% from last year on Fox News Channel, down 22% on CNN and 18% on MSNBC, the Nielsen company said.
He doesn't intend disrespect toward cable news — he's a regular commentator on MSNBC — but Heilemann stresses how “The Circus” is different. The show's viewership was up 11% for its sixth season between January and March, compared to pre-election 2020. Between an inauguration, impeachment and insurrection, they weren't lacking for news.
“The Circus” this season will explore a political divide that has only seemed to grow wider since Trump left office.
“People talk about it on cable,” he said. “But you don't actually see it on cable. One of the things that we do differently is that we let people actually see it.”
Many people were distracted by personality during the Trump years and weren't actually looking at what was going on in the country, said Palmieri, former communications director for President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
One thing Palmieri said she's noticed in her reporting is less anger and more concern about the political divide. Many people can't understand why it's difficult to agree to disagree, and why people with different political beliefs seem to be living in their own realities.
“That's not bringing us any closer necessarily, but I think it's something different, and I think that's something people are trying to understand,” she said. “It's not something you can appreciate unless you're out in the country talking to people.”
Palmieri said she's also chagrined at some of the tactics she's seen from political professionals on both sides, always on edge about losing an election.
She believes democracy has been given a second chance during the early months of the Biden administration, when it could easily have gone the other way.
“I feel like this is the biggest question that overhangs not just the show but the Biden presidency,” she said. “Is this an interlude going to a moment ... where the rules of democracy continue to erode, or is this the beginning of building back the democratic infrastructure, and I mean small ‘d,' and the revitalization of democracy?”