Zurawik: This is the show to watch to understand the chaos of the Trump era in real time

Mark McKinnon, one of the hosts of Showtime’s nonfiction political series “The Circus,” said he thought the show had run its course in November 2016 after its frenetic on-the-bus-train-plane-and-SUV coverage of Donald Trump’s election.

“I initially saw the show as a way to capture the excitement of a presidential campaign,” the former political consultant said in an interview this week. “It was an incredibly exciting election for all the reasons we know, but I thought that was it … one and done.”

But just one week into the Trump administration, McKinnon said he got a call from David Nevins, president and CEO of Showtime, who said, “Hey, guys, get back out there. The circus is actually just getting started.”

Was Nevins ever right.

After a second season in 2017 of covering the madness of Washington in the age of Trump, “The Circus” returned for a third season this month knee-deep in the narrative of American life that dwarfs all other narratives: Trump v. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

With this meta story line comes a John le Carré-meets-Elmore Leonard cast of characters that ranges from Russian oligarchs, spies and bots, to Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti, Michael Cohen, James Comey, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. No one knows where this battle will ultimately take the Trump presidency — or the nation.

I liked this show from the moment it debuted in January 2016 as what McKinnon described as a weekly “real-time documentary” about the race to become president in 2016.

But I love what it has become in its latest iteration: a fast and furious scramble to chronicle the chaos of Trump’s presidency and its impact on American life, told in 24/7 weekly bites. For all the resources focused on covering this controversial presidency by major news operations like CNN, MSNBC and the networks, this little weekly 28-minute (actual running time) show on premium cable is starting to feel like the TV production closest to nailing the helter-skelter nature of this administration and its effect on the national conversation and nervous system week in and week out.

While lots of correspondents, reporters and videographers have commented on feeling like pinballs careening from Trump tweet to tweet and outrage to outrage, “The Circus” comes closer than any other TV production to taking viewers inside that experience — and making some sense of it. At the end of its best episodes, the show manages to pull back just far enough to offer viewers perspective and occasionally even a bit of wisdom about the state of the republic in these unpredictable times.

And this is on a show with a total on-camera cast of three persons: McKinnon, NBC/MSNBNC national affairs analyst John Heilemann and former MSNBC show host Alex Wagner. (She replaced Mark Halperin, who was dropped by Showtime in October in the wake of allegations that he had harassed women while employed at ABC News. Heilemann and Halperin co-wrote the “Game Change” and “Double Down” presidential campaign books on which the series is based.)

I watch this show on Sunday nights, and understand why I have felt so jangled all week. As part of the press, I am surely closer to the eye of the storm than most citizens. But I cannot help but believe that many people who have nothing to do with journalism, government or national politics also feel this in their lives as the gyre generated by Trump’s incredibly short attention span, bully pulpit and outsized ego spins faster and faster, shredding any hope for a coherent vision or national sense of purpose.

Last Sunday’s episode was a good example of what makes this show tick. The focus was Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, and her fire-breathing attorney, Avenatti, as they blitzed media and Trump over his alleged affair with her and payment of $130,000 to remain silent about it.

After watching it purely for pleasure Sunday night when it premiered, I went back and watched it without sound trying to see where the visuals had taken me.

TV is, after all, primarily a visual medium, and in writing about Season 1, I praised the imagery that instantly generated a sense of being backstage with the candidates at rallies, on the road and in strategy sessions with advisers. Instead of filming Trump rallies from out in the crowd looking at the stage, the cameras were constantly shooting 360 degrees with an emphasis from behind the curtain looking out at the crowd. It allowed viewers to both see the candidate as the correspondents did — and to see what the campaign trail looked like through the candidates’ eyes.

The new season takes viewers backstage, too, but the stage is a frenetic, ever-shifting one. What I saw when I watched last week were trains, planes and SUVs — constant movement as the three hosts tried to keep up with the latest chapter of the roller coaster Trump drama.

There was Heilemann at 5 a.m. in an SUV heading to 30 Rock to do a hit on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Later that day, it was Heilemann and Avenatti in an SUV straight out of a courtroom where Fox News host Sean Hannity had just been named as a client of Cohen’s, the president’s personal attorney.

“[Expletive] Sean Hannity,” Avenatti says with a big smile in the privacy of the SUV. “That was like a [expletive] bombshell, man.”

The next day, the scene shifts — the two men are on a train from New York to Washington — and another bombshell drops, an early morning tweet from Trump saying that Daniels made up the claim that she had been physically threatened if she talked about her alleged affair with the president. Avenatti is ecstatic because he believes the president, who previously had not tweeted about Daniels, had just defamed his client on Twitter.

If “The Circus” was only about that, I’d still watch to feel the energy and excitement of chasing the biggest story in American life. But I wouldn’t be praising the program to the extent I am.

Within this 28-minute package, the producers also help viewers connect the dots, showing how the Daniels storyline is a subset of the Trump v. Mueller narrative while constantly framing the larger battle.

McKinnon pulls into the show Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general fired by Trump for refusing to defend his travel ban, to underscore the contrast between the manic president and the methodical prosecutor. “Bob Mueller is just the right guy to be doing this,” Yates tells McKinnon. “Tweets, I would imagine, are just rolling off his back, and he’s going to call it like he sees it. And that means if there are cases to be made, he’s going to make them. But equally important here, if there are not cases to be made, he’s going to call it fairly.”

Asked about Trump, she wonders how he can be thought to have any “moral authority” if he does not submit to questioning by Mueller.

And that’s just it: The Trump v. Mueller conflict is a morality play about a struggle for the soul of the nation.

Wagner takes the analyses one cut deeper in an interview with Jennifer Palmieri, author of “Dear Madam President,” who places the Daniels story line firmly within the cultural context of the #MeToo movement and women marching across America in opposition to the patriarchy that Trump so perfectly embodies.

“So this is an existential shift not just in terms of Trump, but in terms of male power?” Wagner asks the former Clinton and Obama staffer.

“I think it is, I really do,” Palmieri responds. “We’ve sort of been holding ourselves back. And women aren’t doing that any more, including Stormy Daniels.”

This Sunday, McKinnon says the team will be looking at “Trump on the world stage,” going off the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte.

But that was the plan on Tuesday. Who knows what will come out of the White House by the weekend? Thursday morning on "Fox & Friends," Trump acknowledged for the first time that Cohen "represents" him in the Daniels case. Anything could happen next.

McKinnon said the team works straight through the week and all day and night Saturday until 6 or 7 a.m. Sunday editing the episode that will premiere at 8 that night. Showtime management doesn’t see the final product until Sunday morning, he said.

McKinnon acknowledged being skeptical at first when Showtime’s president urged him to keep the series going after Trump’s inauguration.

“That’s because Washington is kind of boring and static,” he explained.

But he’s glad he listened to Nevins and gave it a try.

“I couldn’t have been more wrong,” McKinnon said. “Whether you’re a supporter of Trump’s or an opponent, everybody is dialed in. The drama in unending, unceasing. Good drama means great characters, conflict and surprise. And we get that every single day. If the threshold was just for something interesting to be happening, we would never go off the air.”

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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