"The Circus" goes to Kavanaugh: Women's pain collides with the sport of politics

By default the storm surrounding Brett Kavanaugh is being viewed through a political lens. So somebody has to lose

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 1, 2018 5:59PM (EDT)

Julie Swetnick on "The Circus" (YouTube/The Circus)
Julie Swetnick on "The Circus" (YouTube/The Circus)

Some types of pain, the kind resulting from lasting trauma, don’t turn purple, fade to yellow and disappear with time. Instead they are glass shards embedded in skin that’s healed over it, biting into a nerve ending at unexpected times. It does this long after evidence of the shattering from which that shard resulted has been abandoned on the floor of the party for someone else to clean up.

The glass breakers have no clue that the remnant of their good time remains embedded in another’s body. They might forget they even broke that glass. It was disposable.

To the fragment keeper any such reminder might stop them in their tracks. For such people, and they number in the millions, the turbulence surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is as far from a party as you can imagine.

Hence the challenge of “The Circus” becomes even more difficult, in that it must not only sum up the previous week’s political frenzy in one half hour but also handle the emotional turbulence surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation with care. Both are newsworthy, and both matter greatly in the heated debate as to what happens next.

But to reference what I’ve previously written, if the show’s purpose is to assist the viewer in making sense out of chaos, when wrenching and possibly PTSD-inducing narratives take the wheel of the plot, this injects a higher level of difficulty into the proceedings.

“The Circus” is documentary entertainment, mind you, albeit the variety hosted by journalists. And its utility as a didactic program often slams against time-limits, as it did with the episode “Burden of Proof,” which closed without including new allegations about Kavanaugh brought by fellow Yale alumnus Deborah Ramirez and another source represented by Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti, since identified as Julie Swetnick.

In Sunday’s episode, titled “Judgment Day,” co-host John Heilemann is present when Avenatti makes Swetnick’s identity public, including her photo, on Twitter. And it is one of the more cringeworthy moments of an emotionally trying hour.

"Judgment Day" opens with images of survivors sharing their accounts aloud and in public, one reading from paper fluttering in the grip of quivering hands; another, in voiceover, saying she came forward and told what happened to her, and “nothing was done.”

“Please don’t put someone like my abuser on the Supreme Court,” say one woman who states she was molested at the age of six, as she nervously wrings the cloth of her folded up umbrella in her hands. “It’s not worth the risk. Women deserve better.”’

READ MORE: Jane Fonda opens up about her "Five Acts"

Not long afterward comes a shot of a male pro-Kavanaugh protester declaring that these protesters couldn’t “give a shit about the lady inside, or those four other liars” — the lady being Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, whose poignant testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27, gripped the nation that Thursday.

“It’s unbelievable, where we are today. It’s almost surreal,” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy says in a voiceover during an opening credits sequence featuring a black and white photo montage, rendering all in shades of gray. (Get it?)

Supposedly politics is a battlefront whose struggle is the result of clashing philosophies of governance, where elected officials handle the task of representing their constituents and ensuring as many people as possible receive what they need from the federal system. That struggle could be over civil rights protections, resources for infrastructure, or economic relief, among many other concerns.

To anyone who’s been paying attention over the last decade or so, that assessment is pretty much a pipe dream. Partisan rancor has divided the nation since conservative talk radio and Fox News Channel took off in the mid-'90s, hitting a fever pitch in the last decade.

Power is the name of the game, and always has been. But the version South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham bellowed about in last Thursday's hearing isn’t shared power wielded to benefit the many, but that which is invested in elevating a chosen few.

What’s interesting is that this episode of "The Circus" largely avoids showing much of the caustic indignation inflaming Kavanaugh’s testimony or his loud shouting over questions by committee members who are Democrats. Neither did it show any exchanges between Ford and Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, who spoke for the Republicans on the committee and was widely seen as ineffective.

“The Circus” was created, in part, to filter such lunacy and translate strategy, which Mark McKinnon sought to do by speaking with operatives Ralph Reed of the right wing Faith & Freedom Coalition and Brian Fallon, executive director of the progressive Demand Justice headquarters.

But when trauma survivors are staring down cameras, reporters, and this show’s hosts, the usual treatment of the spectacle really should take a backseat. Hence Sunday’s episode by necessity began with its hosts birddogging the tortured confirmation process taking place despite the vocal anguish from scores of people sitting at the Senate’s doorstep. And this part of the episode worked.

Watching co-host Alex Wagner chase Maine Sen. Susan Collins (who spoke with her candidly for last week’s episode) down the hall, only to receive no comment and be ignored by an assistant using the “I’m on the phone” trick, amplified the tension early on the episode. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton similarly rebuffed Wagner; only Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the three potential swing votes in this matter, made an extended statement to the press.

The timestamp for those moments, by the way, is Tuesday. By late afternoon, we’re following Heilemann on “an exploratory field trip” to Birmingham, Alabama to meet attorney Avenatti, who has contacted “The Circus” right before going public with Swetnick’s identity as the third woman accusing Kavanaugh.

The docuseries’ cameras are there when Avenatti prints the sworn declaration he’s going to get Swetnick to sign, declaring her statement to be true. They’re present as Avenatti heads to the elevator to join Swetnick in a hotel room upstairs (and off camera), and dramatically nods at Heilemann.

Avenatti leaves Heilemann with a copy of the declaration so that he can read the pertinent parts out loud in front of the camera. Heilemann does this in a waiting area, where the TV happens to be tuned in to Mika Brzezinski talking about empowering women on MSNBC.

In writing about the coverage of this hearing, journalists, myself included, have referred to the less than ideal term “optics.” And this portion of “Judgment Day” features the bad variety: Here is a man, representing a woman’s harrowing story of trauma, in front of a screen featuring another woman who famously sustained an ad hominem smear by the man who is now President, who himself is accused of violating women.

During one of the most alarming parts of the account Heilemann pauses to glance dramatically at that TV screen, as if to highlight the horror of it.

Swetnick’s claim of gang rape is horrifying and, in subsequent days, will be all but dismissed. This scene is filmed before Kavanaugh himself angrily refers to it as “a joke.” But Heilemann’s reading is almost theatrical, placed in a setting designed to amplify the drama. The mind reels.

During a tense interview that follows, in which Avenatti disputes Heilemann’s characterization of him as a “porn star lawyer,” due to the notoriety of his most famous client, Stormy Daniels, Avenatti explains that Swetnick is not only credible, but that his team vetted her claims thoroughly.

And then the camera captures the moment Avenatti puts a face and a name to the claim . . . on Twitter.

The centerpiece of this, and perhaps the episode itself, is Heilemann getting Swetnick on camera for a brief statement — we’re talking under three minutes — as she’s dashing to catch a flight.

“It’s not that I just thought about it,” Swetnick tells Heilemann in answer to his question as to why she chose to come forward on the eve of Ford’s hearing.  “It’s been on my mind ever since the . . .” she pauses for a moment, before finishing with, “occurrence.”

The last question Heilemann asks Swetnick is if she believes Kavanaugh to be a bad and immoral man. “I don’t know if he’s a bad or immoral man. Maybe under the alcohol he is. Or maybe when he was younger he didn’t have the same restraint. But I think it needs to be investigated, and I think the facts need to come out,” she says.

After that the plot returns to the trauma drama, filming women’s faces as they watch Ford’s testimony on mobile devices, as one views while sitting the bar of the Tune Inn restaurant, where the trio will gather for the post-game conversation. The series also films Kavanaugh supporters listening to his account.

What we don’t see much of is the “Sports Center” treatment of it all beyond initial takes.

“It’s hard to make political predictions in a moment like this, because what we are going to witness is the human drama of the woman who had, as she accounts for it, this horrible trauma happened to her at a tender age,” Wagner says.

“Likewise, Brett Kavanaugh has spent his life putting together a career that would land him on the Supreme Court and all of a sudden, his moral fiber is up for debate,” Wagner continues.

“No matter how it goes, it’s going to be a pretty momentous day,” McKinnon says, wrapping up this statement of the obvious.

“The Circus” frequently bumps up against limitations, most of them due to the production schedule.

And this holds true here, as the series barely has time to process the meaning of Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake announcing his intent to confirm Kavanaugh before Ana Maria Archila, executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, and activist Maria Gallagher confronted him in the elevator, a twist he meets with weak responses of “thank you” and downcast eyes.

Afterward he agrees to move the confirmation to the Senate floor provided there be a delay to allow for an FBI investigation, albeit one “limited in scope.”

“This is ripping the country apart,” Flake tells reporters.

So how does television, whether it’s TV that hybridizes news and entertainment or is meant purely to entertain, meaningfully examine that suppurating wound, especially when the topic at hand is one similar to the pain endured by legions of injured people?

One way is to look beyond the horror, while acknowledging it, as John Oliver did on HBO”s "Last Week Tonight." Oliver took the tough circumstances and was able to mine barbed comedy from them without coming across as exploitative. This is because he viewed Kavanaugh through the lens of other details that would disqualify him — his temperament, his partisan pandering — as opposed to whether he was more credible than Ford.

Oliver also added the conclusion that Republicans are intent on slamming Kavanaugh through to the Supreme Court “to deliver a 'f**k you' to Democrats and even more directly, a 'f**k you' to women." He can do that, because he’s a comedian.

“Saturday Night Live,” on the other hand, made its own commentary in a more toothless way by employing Matt Damon to portray Kavanaugh as a screaming, entitled water-swilling ex-party boy in its cold open, wisely avoiding Ford altogether.

Additionally, in one of its filmed skits, "SNL" depicted an ‘80s-era rager filled with people who would face varying degrees of consequences for their actions at that party later in life, including one who exposes himself to the attendees, who we’re told via onscreen text will deny having done so later, and who will have his account backed up by a number of witnesses cheering him on.

Comedy allows for a great deal of analytical latitude. “The Circus,” meanwhile, edges the line of drama so frequently that its hosts’ dialogue can feel more forced and obvious next to contextualizing images that speak with more clarity and passion. And this is particularly noticeable in “Judgment Day,” when the passions of protesters run white hot and most of the politicians deciding their fates come across as frustratingly unconcerned and out of town.

Walking around with embedded fragments of glass becomes something one learn to navigates, to avoid pressing upon lest the pain brings the trauma rushing back. And it’s important for TV shows to understand this, to acknowledge it and tread carefully.

“Judgment Day” ends with McKinnon, Wagner and Heilemann chatting with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar about the “poisonous process” surrounding the hearing. Klobuchar, citing her eight-year experience as a prosecutor, explains that things come in at the last minute all the time.

“The question is, what do you do when it happens? . . . Do you just slip it under the rug? Or do you bring it out and try to figure it out?” Klobuchar says of Friday’s announcement.

These are questions “The Circus” needs to grapple with carefully as the rest of this arc plays out. Because so many of us are so very wrung out with the reminder that the ugly ache under our skin is not acknowledged as wrongdoing and disqualifying, but as a political battle tactic.

It’s not strategy. It’s not fodder for The Big Show. Right now it’s exhausting.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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