Channel Surfing

The Circus

American Experience on PBS, October 8 and 9, check local listings

Kids today have no shortage of distractions: Social media, video games, and streaming seem to be the preferred time sucks for young people. They’ve never been so connected and yet so detached. And many would struggle to imagine a time when kids didn’t have Google or Snapchat to experience or engage with the world. Once upon a time, children went outside. Families of the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t have flat screens or Wi-Fi to keep them entertained. They went to the circus.

PBS’ four-hour plunge into the history and influence of this treasured pastime is as engrossing as it is overwhelming. On the surface, this documentary is about the roots of the circus in the American soil; how showman (and shyster) P.T. Barnum had the vision and dexterity to grow its popularity; how circus folk banded together in a brutal, itinerant lifestyle to create a ragtag family; and how generations of Americans found a sense of wonder under the big top.

Like all poorly regulated forms of entertainment, life for early circus performers wasn’t pretty—and as they traveled across the United States, their arrivals were often met with disdain. In the early 19th century, on the heels of a religious revival in this country, performers endured the wrath of church leaders who viewed entertainment of any kind as sinful. But Barnum’s concept could not be cast out. The lure of the acrobats, clowns, contortionists, oddities, and an ever-changing menagerie of animals proved too enticing for American audiences. We were hooked.

The Circus, meticulously researched and rendered, is a celebration of ingenuity, ability, and agility. It is an homage to the faceless entertainers who devoted their lives to the circus and its code. One early critic called performers “nomadic ruffians.” But history has a kinder retrospect. They were pioneers of entertainment—ambassadors of escapism.

One historian in the film says it best: “There is a need for the human being to try things for no reason whatsoever.”

All or Nothing: Manchester City

Amazon Prime

The lackluster ratings for the 2018 FIFA World Cup prove a time-tested theory: Soccer doesn’t yet have a foothold in this country. Professional leagues are popping up, but culturally we haven’t embraced the sport quite like the trifecta of football, basketball, and baseball. For those who didn’t play, Amazon Prime offers a fascinating look into the lives of those who do in All or Nothing: Manchester City

In Europe, soccer isn’t just popular; it’s a religion. The 2016-2017 season netted over $17 billion in revenue. This docuseries focuses on one club in particular: Manchester City. Much of the focus, at least with the first episode, is on head coach Pep Guardiola, a former midfielder. The series covers the team’s mission to clinch the number one ranking and to add some hardware to their trophy case. It’s a lofty goal—and watching the team work to accomplish it is riveting.

Channel surfers might recoil from the locker-room vulgarities (these are professional athletes, after all), but stick with the series and you’ll discover themes of teamwork, family, and sacrifice that truly inspire.

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