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Showtime’s ‘Circus’ returns with new co-host Alex Wagner

April 12, 2018

This image released by Showtime shows, from left, Alex Wagner, John Heilemann and Mark McKinnon from the series, "The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth." Wagner joins the show as a permanent host this season, premiering Sunday, April 15. (Alison Cohen Rosa/Showtime via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — A lot has changed since the three hosts of Showtime’s “The Circus” shared duck at Washington’s Momofuku restaurant at the end of the show’s last season.

Seemingly half of the White House staff, for one thing. More importantly for the political series, Mark Halperin was dropped because of sexual misconduct reports from when he worked at ABC News. Alex Wagner of CBS News and The Atlantic has replaced him, joining series veterans John Heilemann and Mark McKinnon.

The show’s third season begins Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time.

While there was some doubt publicly about whether the show would go on without Halperin, there didn’t seem much within “The Circus.” The show has established itself as a documentary-style review of a week in politics and government, an attempt to get behind the headlines and talk that preoccupy cable television news.

“I think if I got hit by a bus tomorrow on the West Side highway,” said Heilemann, in a telephone interview while he was actually riding on that road, “that ‘The Circus’ is something that Showtime could still produce and would still produce.”

Heilemann and Wagner wouldn’t talk about Halperin in interviews, and the show isn’t expected to address his absence.

For all the camaraderie of Heilemann, Halperin and McKinnon, they are three white men similar in age (McKinnnon is 62, Heilemann 52 and Halperin 53). Wagner is 40 and a new mother. She has just written a book about immigration and a search for identity involving her Burmese mother and American father.

“I bring a different perspective on all of that and a lot of zeal,” Wagner said. “And I think we’re also talking a lot about gender, particularly in politics and the workplace. It’s good to have a woman who has a firsthand knowledge and interest in that, not to say that it’s just a woman’s issue. But we’re tackling that and talking about it in a way that we weren’t in the last news cycle. It seems like fortuitous timing.”

The attitudes of women and young people also promise to be key in the midyear elections, which a significant portion of “The Circus” will focus on this season.

Wagner is not a complete newcomer to the team; she did some reporting for two episodes in its first season. “The Circus” had plans for her to do more this year even before Halperin’s exit.

“She’s going to bring a different perspective because of her biography and she’s going to bring a different perspective because of the kinds of things that excite her about political commentary and about political coverage,” Heilemann said. “I think the show will have a different flavor to it and a different texture, but it will still be recognizably ‘The Circus.’”

There was some thought that “The Circus” would have less excitement without the pulse of campaigns. But the pace of news has hardly let up with Donald Trump in office, giving them plenty of material. It also makes it harder to discuss in advance topics that will be covered this season, although the upcoming midterms will provide fodder.

“It’s an incredibly ambitious program because it’s incredibly responsive to the news cycle,” Wagner said. “You can start out on Monday having an idea of what the show is going to be, and by Friday it’s something else. That’s only increased in the current media environment, where the lead story changes throughout the day.”

Heilemann said Trump makes it harder than any other president he’s covered to distinguish between the urgent and the important.

Both are proud, however, of how “The Circus” has been able to bring the strengths of a documentary to day-to-day news.

″‘The Circus’ is essential because it essentially takes the week that was and distills it into, OK, here’s what mattered,” Wagner said. “That’s needed now more than ever. It’s never going to be a policy show, but we often lose sight in the palace intrigue and the political rat-a-tat of the big seismic shifts in terms of policy and how that is actually affecting people.”

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