Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus is among the most famous and beloved institutions in America’s rich history. From its humble beginnings in the 1800s up until 2017, when it shuttered its doors for the very last time, the circus has entertained countless masses the world over. Early this past November, PBS Distribution presented a new profile of “The Greatest Show on Earth” in a new episode of PBS’ hit history-based series American Experience, The Circus. The two-part, four-hour program is an interesting watch for fans of the circus and for history buffs in general. That is due in part to the very history lesson presented throughout the course of the program. While the history that is presented does plenty to make American Experience: The Circus interesting, the history that it does not present detracts from its presentation, to a certain point. This will be discussed a little bit later. Considering the information that is and is not shared in this program, the double-disc set’s average price point proves to be a positive in its own right, and will be discussed later. Each item is important in its own right to the whole of American Experience: The Circus. All things considered, they make American Experience: The Circus a presentation that is maybe not the greatest documentary of 2018, but is a still a good show.
American Experience: The Circus is an interesting look at the history of the famed Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus that will appeal to circus and history buffs alike. Those audiences will agree that while not the greatest doc on the history of the circus, it is still a good show. That is due in part to the history that is presented. The history starts in the early 1800s, with the creation of two separate circuses by P.T. Barnum and James Bailey (and actually before that). The story, from there, follows the course of each man’s career before the two eventually intersect through a partnership formed between the pair. As the story progresses, audiences learn about the journey – both physically and metaphorically – on which the pair embarked in all of its highs and lows. From a journey by one circus to Australia, Africa, the Asian-Pacific nations and other points around the globe, to fires the plagued the circus to labor disputes and of course all of the rave reviews that the circus would eventually receive as the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus and much more, audiences are presented a rich history of the circus’ infancy and later life. Audiences will be interested to during that history, that the circus was originally aimed at adult audiences (due mainly to the outfits of the female performers at the time), that the circus did face issues of racism, and also presented the first moving pictures as well as plenty more information. From the animal tamers to the high-wire performers to the sideshow acts, every part of the circus gets its own focus in this expansive presentation that takes audiences through that noted early history of the circus. That rich history gives audiences plenty to appreciate, but for all that the doc does show, there is information that sadly is left out. That omitted information detracts from the doc’s presentation to a certain point.
There is a lot for audiences to appreciate in American Experience: The Circus in regards to the history presented in the doc. Of course, the doc is not a perfect presentation. One of the program’s most notable omissions is that of a discussion on James Bailey’s death. The program does note Bailey’s death, and how that eventually led to the joining of Ringling Brothers’ circus and that of Barnum and Bailey. However, the mention is brief, at best. As his death is noted, a picture of a newspaper article clearly noting the cause of death – Erysipelas. Some might argue that this is not important, but considering that the cause of death was noted, it would have been nice to have had some background on what exactly Erysipelas is and how he might have contracted the infection. Yes, it would have lengthened the documentary overall, but that is not a bad thing in this case. That is because it is just some of the information that was disappointingly omitted. The doc ends after the closure of the circus on July 16, 1956, the day when the circus held its then final performance in Pittsburgh, PA. Of course, as is known today, it clearly was not the last time the world would ever see the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus. It would eventually be resurrected in 1967 when a group of investors bought the company from John Ringling North (the nephew of John Ringing). The circus would go on to run until May 21, 2017, and as most audiences know, suffered from allegations of animal abuse and other problems in its modern era. Again, adding this history would have lengthened the documentary even more, but by omitting the circus’ modern history as part of the documentary, audiences are not getting the full history of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus. Rather, they are just getting a portion of its history. True circus history buffs will certainly agree that considering all of the omitted information noted here and much more (including the revelations of what truly caused the fire of 1944 – which was just one of a handful of fires the plagued the circus), it would have been a wiser decision or PBS to do a full mini-series event for this doc than the four-hour presentation that was ultimately released. That is not to say that what is presented here is not appreciated. Rather, it is just that the featured presentation is only one part of the circus’ history. To that end, it makes American Experience: The Circus an entertaining show, but definitely not “the greatest show.”
The information that is and is not presented throughout American Experience: The Circus makes it a program that is worth at least an occasional watch, as it does succeed in presenting a very rich picture of the circus’ early life. Keeping this in mind, it makes the doc’s average price point of $21.89 relatively affordable. That point was determined by using prices listed at PBS’ online store, Amazon, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Books-A-Million. The average price puts the per-hour charge at just over $5. Considering this price point, and the depth and breadth of information that is featured throughout the presentation, the average price point is not a bank-breaker by any means. Keeping all of this in mind, American Experience: The Circus proves to be not the greatest presentation of Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey’s circus, but still a good show nonetheless.
American Experience: The Circus is a strong new episode of PBS’ hit history-based series. It is a presentation that will appeal to circus history buffs and history buffs alike with the expansive history of the circus’ early life. Of course, there is still a certain amount of history that was omitted from the doc, that would have made it even more enjoyable had it been included in the final product. Keeping this in mind, the doc’s average price point of just over $20 proves to be a relatively affordable price. Each item is important in its own right to the whole of the documentary. All things considered, it is a good show, but not the greatest. It is available now. More information on this and other episodes of American Experience is available online now at:
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