Wagner was in a car from Savannah to Atlanta to see President-Elect Joe Biden. Palmieri was in Dalton awaiting President Donald Trump.
The stakes were high. “Georgia is literally the center of the political universe,” said Wagner, who joined the show in 2018 after Mark Halperin stepped down following sexual harassment allegations. Wagner had spoken with Jon Ossoff during the fall campaign and landed an illuminating and prescient interview with a leader of a Georgia militia group.
“Many of his most fervent supporters were armed and prepared to go to battle in the event of a stolen election,” Wagner said, two days before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. “Chris Hill, leader of the Georgia Three Percenters, was willing to talk to us.”
Though many militia leaders follow Trump’s lead and distrust — even deride — the mainstream media, Wagner said “The Circus” “exists outside the traditional rubric of newsgathering. We’re a weekly documentary. It’s an interesting platform for them to explain their side of the story. I’m proud of the interview. I felt it was important information to hear.”
So who watches “The Circus?” “These are people who are naturally interested in politics,” Wagner said. “They probably watch a lot of cable news. We’re addicted because the state of American politics is like drinking from a firehose. They really need something that offers a different vantage point. Most of the cable news is analysis and conversation. We document what is happening from the ground.”
The docuseries, which airs on Sunday evening, is produced on the fly and news happens frequently on Fridays that forces the post-production crew to pivot quickly. For instance, Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 on a Friday. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on a Friday.
“I don’t think there is a word in the English language that adequately conveys how difficult this work is for the post-production team,” Wagner said. “They start grinding as soon as they get footage. They pull all-nighters all week. They are the unsung heroes of the show, the reason it’s as good as it is.”
And despite the dangers of the pandemic, Wagner said they have managed to avoid catching the virus. “It’s really, really difficult,” she said. “I’m talking to you in the back of a car with the window open and wearing an N95 mask. We take nothing for granted. We are traveling from place to place, and we don’t want to be vectors for COVID.”
There is also the challenge of connecting with interview subjects without being able to touch them, or in many cases, see their entire faces. “It makes it more difficult to establish trust,” she said.
Jennifer Palmieri was a guest correspondent season 5 on "The Circus" and is now full-time for season 6. Aaron J. Thornton/SHOWTIME.
Credit: Aaron J. Thornton/SHOWTIME
Credit: Aaron J. Thornton/SHOWTIME
Palmieri is different from Wagner. She was a guest correspondent last year before nabbing her full-time job in 2021. “I’m an analyst who comes from politics,” she said. “I don’t claim to be a journalist. I love that being on this side. It allows me to talk to voters in a way you don’t do when you’re in politics. I learned so much helping out with ‘The Circus’ in 2020 about what’s going on in America.”
A Democrat, she said she spoke with Trump voters trying to understand their viewpoints. “I don’t want to push people,” she said. “I never argue with people.”
She is less interested in the conspiracy theories and more focused on what value being a Trump supporter brings to them. “Trump paints a picture of America that [they believe] is reflective of their own experiences,” Palmieri said. “He validates what they believe is important to them. There is a real connection.”
When the producers asked her to join “The Circus” full time, she didn’t hesitate. She liked the show when she was working with the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 and was interviewed at the time.
“I really believe most people are in politics for the right reasons,” she said. “I really think this show is a positive thing.”
She admires Wagner deeply. “I have zero experience interviewing people, so I try to learn by watching her,” Palmieri said. And she considers John Heilemann and Mark McKinnon, the other hosts, as some of the “best analytical minds that cover politics.”
Palmieri sees “The Circus” covering the Biden administration this season and its efforts to tame the pandemic and propel its agenda. She also wonders how America will function in general. “Will the country build something together?” he asked. “Do we grow further apart? The parties are definitely realigning in a way that we cannot predict.”
On Thursday, a spokeswoman for “The Circus” said this Sunday’s episode will likely be longer than 30 minutes given what happened at the Capitol in D.C. Wednesday.
Palmieri, in a note after the attacks, said she was in Atlanta when it happened: “It was so shocking to see and such a tragic contrast to what happened in Georgia. Election Day in Georgia was democracy in action; what was going on in DC was democracy defiled.”
HOW TO WATCH
“The Circus,” 8 p.m. Sundays on Showtime