PBS’s six-part documentary Circus debuted last night, and the tent-raiser episode, so to speak, started off by taking a broad look at the culture of an ancient, itinerant entertainment profession. And while the obvious calling card of the show is the spectacular visuals of, well, spectacle (see clip above), I was as interested or more in the mundane, trailer-park existence of the workers in The Big Apple Circus. (For instance, the hierarchy in which bigwigs and stars get campers, while the grunts live on “sleeper row.”) It’s fascinating to hear people talk, with professional intensity and gravity, about a job automatically associated with silliness. (“It’s not that he hasn’t had success as a clown… but this is the big leagues.”)
Mind you, the throwback spectacle of a single-ring performance—people gathered in a tent in a circle, as they have done for hundreds of years—captured in high-def video provides plenty of eye candy. But it’s the human questions—what makes a person literally run off and join the circus? what keeps a family in circus culture for generations?—that for me make up the main attraction. What say you: greatest show on Earth or pratfall?