8 p.m. Wednesdays (Nov. 3-17)
WFYI (Channel 20)
When it comes to the circus, we only see the magic – the flawless acrobats and trapeze artists, the animals and humans completely in synch, the clowns with their routines perfected. But behind the scenes, it's significantly less glamorous.
That's the overriding take-away of Circus, PBS' generally wonderful backstage look at the Big Apple Circus, a one-ring, European-style show that mostly tours the East Coast. Anyone who's ever thought of running away and joining the circus just might think twice after seeing this.
Not because circus life can be grueling – so can any job – but because of the accommodations (trailers, portable toilets), the occasional dangers, the pressures to perform perfectly and the need to attract the entertainment dollar. All those aspects of circus life end up under the microscope here.
Circus tells these stories in documentary/reality style with no narrator and the usual will-they-or-won't-they constructs. As in: Will they be able to put together a cohesive show? Will (insert name of performer) rise above his fears? Can the show go on? The answers: Of course; of course; undoubtedly.
In these six hours, we'll meet many of the 150 or so employees who work for Big Apple. That means everyone from Paul Binder, the founder and artistic director, to the ring crew personnel who break down the big top when the show moves on, and from the newbies in the show (they call them "First of May" performers) to ninth-generation circus families. As with any group this large, some are characters – Steve Smith, the guest director, seems more like a human cartoon – others are just ordinary personalities with unusual talents.
In the first two hours of Circus, which was all that was available for review, we see the troupe coming together in rehearsals in Walden, NY. They take 4-5 weeks to put together the show, then they're off to Virginia for performances.
Big Apple turned out to be a good company to follow since it's a little different than most American circuses. Its performances take place in small venues where the audience is close to the action, it's all in one ring so the crowd knows where to look and it only uses working animals like horses and dogs rather than wild animals.
But Big Apple is like every great circus in that it employs excellent jugglers, clowns, aerial acts, trick riders and acrobats, and it wows audiences. The last part of this week's second hour shows highlights from the circus' dress rehearsal show, and clearly the kids in the audience are in awe. Adults too -- you'll have a similar reaction at home.
8 p.m. Sundays (Nov. 7-21)
National Geographic Channel
COMING UP: Animals migrate for food, water, safety, mating and other rituals specific to their species. On Sunday, National Geographic Channel begins a series showing the migration patterns of a couple dozen life forms ranging in size from plankton and army ants to elephants, sharks and whales.
Great Migrations, which runs through most of November, is a startlingly beautiful, captivating series that documents the hardships animals go through to move from one place to another.
The video is awe-inspiring. As you watch red flying foxes soaring over Australia – in a scene that would have scared Alfred Hitchcock – antelope in the Sudan fighting each other for the right to mate or army ants using their own bodies to build a nest, your first reaction is wonderment. After that, you just want to compliment the makers of this series for giving us a perfect seat to view these creatures in their natural habitat.
As an added bonus, Alec Baldwin narrates. Even when he's being serious – which he is here – he always sounds just slightly sarcastic. So when he describes an elephant seal as "four tons of raw sexual aggression," you can't help but laugh. That's not the point of Great Migrations; it's just a nice extra attraction.
Baldwin calls these "the most moving stories on earth," and literally and figuratively, he's right. Only one caveat: Young children might be upset at the violence, particularly the scene of lions killing a zebra, and there are mating rituals that might require some explanation.