‘The Circus’ explores ‘distinctly American’ history, and how TV toppled the big top

(CNN) – Stop if you’ve heard this one: A “distinctly American” mass-entertainment institution thrives for years, before its business model gets undermined by new technology. Only with “The Circus,” an oddly timely PBS documentary, it’s the “greatest show on Earth” that fell victim to a new delivery system — namely, television.

The circus fell victim to programs like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which gradually brought such novelties directly into the home, cutting the legs out from under it. That’s a rather sobering thought, given that traditional TV currently finds itself under siege, from streaming and other alternative programming options.

That framing provides the bigger picture in an extremely entertaining four-hour documentary, which, like the best PBS fare, filters American history through the lens of a specific event or institution, a la “The Civil War” or “Baseball.” A sweeping look at life under the big top, “The Circus” also explores a variety of issues — race, women’s suffrage, animal rights, and shared pop culture — through the larger-than-life hucksters and performers that birthed the self-anointed Greatest Show on Earth.

Although it bears all the hallmarks of those aforementioned Ken Burns documentaries, “The Circus” was written and directed by Sharon Grimberg, under the “American Experience” banner.

The two-night project — chronicling the circus from its late-18th-century founding through the end of its heyday in the 1950s — auspiciously follows last year’s surprise hit “The Greatest Showman,” the movie loosely inspired by the life of P.T. Barnum, who is not surprisingly a central figure here.

Perhaps most notably, the circus was one of the few shared cultural experiences that connected the nation in the days before radio and TV. Indeed, people frequently gained their first glimpse of exotic animals, like elephants, when the circus came to town.

Owners like Barnum and the Ringling brothers, meanwhile, ushered in an age of corporate entertainment, turning local and regional pastimes into “an industrial experience.” “As the country grew, the circus evolved with it,” the narration notes.

“The Circus” also spends a good deal of time chronicling the impact of technology, from a practical perspective — as the railroad allowed the traveling show to bypass small towns and head to big cities — and in terms of innovation, with electric lighting and moving pictures among the draws the impresarios used to attract crowds.

Perhaps the most sobering thread deals with an escalating arms race involving circus animals, especially elephants, including the ruthless means used to procure them and the conditions under which they were forced to live. (Elephants remained part of the Ringling Bros. show until they were finally retired in 2016.)

Grimberg takes a few detours along the way, dealing with famed acts as well as the competitive machinations involving circus owners, who were among the highest-profile tycoons of their time.

The documentary also captures the romance that surrounded these shows — and how the liberating image of “running away to join the circus” still lingers. Nor should it be lost that the current cultural and political comparisons prompts frequent comparisons to a “circus” atmosphere and the means that Barnum and his competitors employed to dazzle the “rubes.”

Today, no one needs to run away — or even leave the house — to catch “The Circus.” And while PBS is too demure to promote it as “the greatest show on TV,” it’s certainly a good one — reminding us that even the most venerable entertainment spectacles are vulnerable to changing times.

“The Circus” will air Oct. 8-9 at 9 p.m. on PBS.

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