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TELEVISION REVIEW

WGBH steps right up with ‘Circus’

Six-hour series looks inside, behind big top

The Big Apple Circus’ Sarah Schwarz walks the high wire. The Big Apple Circus’ Sarah Schwarz walks the high wire. (Matthew Akers)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / November 3, 2010

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Early in “Circus,’’ someone says that “the real circus begins when the gates are closed.’’ But it just ain’t so. To judge from the first two hours of this six-hour PBS documentary series, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 2, the 150 cast and crew members of the Big Apple Circus are pretty regular folks — except when they’re actually on the high wire or the trapeze. Maybe that’s why this backstage view is interesting but never wholly riveting.

Filmmakers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre were behind the Emmy-winning series “Carrier’’ in 2008. They and their crew followed the Big Apple Circus during its “Play On!’’ season of 2008-09, from the first practice sessions at base camp in Walden, N.Y., to teary goodbyes at the end of the road.

We meet Big Apple founder, artistic director, and ringmaster Paul Binder and director Steve Smith, a couple of canny circus veterans who empathize with their performers when they can but make unsentimental choices when necessary. For all the talk of magic under the big top, the circus is a business, and they’re responsible for making it go.

It’s clear from the first hour, “First of May,’’ that the business is built on the backs of the crew members who raise the tent and hang the rigging. Many are on the margins of society, accepting low pay and long hours in exchange for room, board, and a sense of belonging.

That’s still not enough for one young worker to keep it together without his medication. When he’s taken away by police, you can almost sense the filmmakers’ excitement as they join his wife on a trip to bail him out. Unexpected drama is a documentarian’s fondest hope, but this tangent brings us the flavor of a segment from “Cops’’; it feels out of place.

Some story arcs do provide compellingly specific looks into circus life. New clown Glen Heroy has a tough time adjusting to Big Apple’s style and soon fears that he’ll be fired. He seems like a savvy showbiz veteran, but his layers of insecurity are slowly revealed, and you’ll root for him. Ditto German-born wire walker Sarah Schwarz, who wonders how many years of work she has left; a practice-room scene in which a teenage girl attempts to duplicate her grace on the wire is compelling.

That scene plays out without embellishment, but “Circus’’ isn’t cinema verite. There are direct-to-camera interviews, time-lapse shots, split screens, and indie rock on the soundtrack. The cinematography is beautiful, and there seems to be nowhere around the Big Apple’s tents and trailers that the camera won’t go.

There’s just not much in the way of drama here. The Big Apple is a nice, modern, family-oriented circus with no lions or tigers to fear or pity; safety nets have taken much of the danger from the aerial acts. A horse that falls in a practice ring is the one heart-in-the-throat moment of the first night of “Circus.’’

The performers, even the young ones, come across as dedicated professionals who love what they do. In front of the cameras, at least, they don’t seem wildly eccentric or egomaniacal or, frankly, all that charismatic. And while there’s sadness when an act gets fired, it’s quickly hugged away.

In future episodes, brothers who juggle face a split when one decides to leave the act for medical school. Another young performer prepares to attend college, as his parents have long planned. Binder decides to step back from day-to-day responsibilities, in and out of the ring. It all seems quite sensible, except for one acrobat who jokes that a fall temporarily left his liver somewhere up in his neck.

Maybe in the age of “30 Rock’’ and TMZ.com and “Celebrity Rehab,’’ we’re conditioned to demand more high-volume drama from our backstage tales. Or maybe the filmmakers just didn’t get lucky. But for all its well-meaning, diligent focus, “Circus’’ seems unlikely to inspire the roar of the crowd.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

CIRCUS

On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 9-11 (additional episodes Nov. 10, 17)