(C)ome One, Come All

Beyond hearing a recommendation on a podcast for Circus, a documentary mini-series that aired on PBS in 2010, I went into this newest experiment as blindly as I did the other ABC properties. I don't know where this fascination of mine regarding circuses has suddenly come from, but I suppose I can think of worse topics to be exploring.

The mini-series documents the 2008-2009 season of the Big Apple Circus and the people who work for it, from performers to directors to teachers to crew. The circus has always been a symbol for escape, and not just for audiences who wish to be amazed for a couple of hours. The nomadic and transitory nature of the circus can be magnetic to people who want to leave their lives behind and start anew. Or circus has been in the family blood for multiple generations. Or it's just a way to scratch the itch of wanting to perform. All of these urges and more are explored in the six episodes of this show, which spends as much time behind the curtain as it does in the ring.

If you weren't aware that the personnel of this company are real, you'd have to make them up. I can think of no better description of the season's guest director than "A real life version of Corky St. Clair". Others aren't so whimsical, but just as fascinating. There are a pair of juggling identical twins who work flawlessly together in the ring, but don't have much in common besides their act, and are being pulled apart by disparate ambitions. The jolly clowns contend with depression and cancer scares. Married crew-workers leave the circus when the husband is kicked out for discussing the technical aspects of how he'd bomb the place, and I figured we'd never see either of them again. But the circus has a tight hold on people, and the wife soon returns after her separation, starts dating another crew-worker, gets pregnant, and the new couple begins dreaming of putting together an act of their own to perform. (Tell me again why America is so excited to watch a gang of vapid whores pretend to fight at a fake cocktail party, when real life is so much more interesting?)

Besides all the human drama, there's plenty of material to be mined from the acts themselves. This is dangerous work, and you never know when a horse is going to go out from under somebody, or an acrobat will fall from the sky. Children must decide whether to follow in their parents' footsteps, or want to go live a more normal life. The troupe is described as a family more than once, but of course the circus is a business, and acts that don't work get cut, regardless of anyone's fondness for one another. After spending six hours with this tight-knit group of people, I feel like I really got a sense of what their existence entails, both the positive and the negative aspects. When the company parts ways at the end of the series, I found it a genuinely bittersweet moment, not only for the wanderers of the circus life who don't know where they'll land next, but for me as well.

Circus: A-


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