Flipping through the air will always have a certain pull on me. Growing up I was involved in gymnastics and diving. At about ten years old I started diving competitively and didn't stop til I finished high school. I also coached diving for many years. I have always been keenly interested in gymnastics and diving. These flippy sports led me to their glamorous show biz counterpart: the circus.
The circus is magic for most kids, and many adults for that matter. My love affair with the circus ended on a sunny day in March in 1998. My dad took me and probably my brother, although I honestly don't remember who else was there, to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey at RFK Stadium, I believe. I was a bit, um, emotional because it was my sixteenth birthday and I failed my driver's test that morning. No fear, we were going to the circus. And who should greet us, but smiling pamphleteers from PETA decrying the use of animals in the circus. That pamphlet forever changed my perception of the circus.
There are many circuses that do no use wild animals and instead either use only poorly paid people or they include only domesticated working animals, such as horses and dogs. The Big Apple Circus is one of them. My dad took my sibs and me to see the Big Apple Circus a few times as kids. It was a very satisfactory experience.
Who cares about my childhood experiences with circuses, right? Well, probably no one, but it will at least give you some context to how excited I was when I saw PBS made a reality tv mini series based on the Big Apple Circus. Circus aired on PBS sometime in November, but, as I discovered this weekend, it is still available on the PBS website. I watched all six episodes in one day.
Circus gives us a peak into the lives of the performers, management, crew and animals that make up the Big Apple Circus Family. The segments on the performers are really, really interesting. There is an ongoing theme of the division between people who grew up in circus families and those that came to the circus as adults. There is also quite a bit of time devoted to the kids whose parents are in the circus. Many of them are like 9th generation circus families.
The segments on the bosses, the guest director Steve Smith, and the founder/artistic director Paul Binder, are interesting but neither one of them is particularly likable. Steve Smith is one of the most awkward human adults I have ever seen. Paul Binder seems like some sort of circus despot. Maybe its just my Bolshevik reflexes, but I did not like the bosses.
Now the crew... At first they set up life in the circus as extremely difficult but like a surrogate family. This seemed totally interesting and I wanted to know more about being in the crew. Unfortunately, they quickly started focusing on weird romances amongst some of the crew. Talk about awkward. The show begins by starting to explore why young people would choose such a hard and nomadic job, and by the second episode they completely move away from that to focus on the boring and weird love lives of a few of the more off putting crew members. This is most "reality show" part of Circus and it is by far the weakest. There was so much potential to do something really interesting with the crew, and instead they focused on the lowest common denominator of baby mommas and hook ups.
Over all, the show was very interesting but a bit disappointing. If you love the circus, you will enjoy the behind the scenes view, but if you don't love it, you may want to pass on this awkward romp.
Circus on pbs.com