Two of the most compelling people I've seen on TV recently are Jeanette Rubio and Jane Sanders. The former is the wife of Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio and the latter is married to Democratic contender Bernie Sanders.
They don't appear often in news coverage. But they've appeared in The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, a wonderful Showtime series airing on The Movie Network in Canada (Sundays at 8 p.m. and on-demand). It's by far the most cleverly shaped and enlightening coverage of U.S. politics right now.
In this age of saturation TV news coverage and ceaseless social media, it's hard to imagine an original approach to the strange fishbowl of the presidential campaign, but The Circus delivers. It is wry and fascinating every week.
The footage is gathered weekly and edited quickly for maximum up-to-date quality. It's edited through the night on Saturday and airs on Sunday. Made by Showtime with Bloomberg News, it features journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, and veteran political strategist Mark McKinnon. Each week they are embedded with a different campaign but flit in and out of different events, looking for those deeply revealing moments and reactions. It isn't gotcha-journalism. It's wisecracking, rueful, on-the-fly reporting and very shrewd.
Some of the candidates are easygoing with the three intruders. Others aren't. The most recent episode featured New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in fine fettle, talking about himself and joking with voters in Iowa. He liked the attention and the gossiping. If the crew from The Circus had asked if they could tuck him into bed, Christie would have said, "Sure thing!"
Donald Trump is, of course, far less friendly. He is, after all, the ringmaster in the circus now. Perhaps you think you've got a sense of Trump from his outrageous antics and statements.
But in one brief scene in the series you get a truly visceral sense of his temper and ego. Heilemann grabs a minute with Trump in Iowa just before the caucus vote. He tells him bluntly that the other Republican campaigns are saying that Trump's campaign is falling apart. There's a flash of anger – Trump is livid. He walks away and keeps giving Heilemann the stink eye from inside his car. It's pure black comedy.
We see Hillary Clinton, seeming tired, trying to be at ease with a small gathering in Iowa. A question she's asked is this: "How do your political beliefs align with the Ten Commandments?" There's a brief second where you think Clinton is about to declare, "Oh screw this, I'm outta here." But she concocts one of those remarkably bland yet all-encompassing responses that good politicians can dream up instantly.
Footage from a Bernie Sanders rally brings home to us the vast number of young people who are supporting him. A Ted Cruz encounter with voters, in a barn, illustrates the manner in which the Texas senator can turn into a snarling church preacher in seconds. Inside the Sanders campaign team there is outright glee at news that only a couple of hundred people showed up to hear Bill Clinton stump for Hillary.
And at that event one of the reporters points to an innocuous figure in the Clinton entourage. It's a veteran Democratic strategist who has advised Bill Clinton countless times. The reporter smells trouble in the Clinton campaign. Bill Clinton laughs it off, nervously.
Meanwhile the program finds Jane Sanders getting ready to leave an Iowa hotel. She chats, jokes and sees Bernie walking by. He shrugs and keeps going. "Hey, Bernie," Jane shouts, "Can I get selfie with you?" Bernie moseys back, jokes with his wife, not a care in the world. Later the program pays a visit to Marco Rubio, whose wife Jeanette is raising four young kids as the campaign rolls along. Rubio himself goes out into the New Hampshire snow to play with the kids. The self-conscious staging by Rubio is at once hilarious and pathetic.
Meanwhile Jeanette sits across the table from the reporters. She says nothing much but has this vaguely frightened look in her eyes. You assume she's thinking, "This is very weird."
And it is. The presidential campaign truly is an epic political circus. And The Circus is a unique, addictive perspective on it. You're not familiar with the tricks and tomfoolery of the actual circus until you've seen it.