BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- If the energized performance of actor Benedict Cumberbatch in "Sherlock" on "Masterpiece Mystery!" doesn't offer sufficient proof that PBS is capable of putting on entertaining television, step right up for another example: "Circus" (9-11 tonight and Nov. 10 and 17, WQED-TV), a three-night, six-hour documentary about life behind the scenes at the Big Apple Circus.
Created by the same production team responsible for 2008's "Carrier," a PBS docu-series about life aboard an aircraft carrier, "Circus" introduces viewers to the cast of this traveling circus, following them from rehearsals in Walden, N.Y., to the Big Apple's co-founders' trip to an annual circus festival in Monte Carlo.
With Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in Pittsburgh this week at Consol Energy Center, some residents may venture out to see a live circus show, but "Circus" executive producers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre give television viewers a front-row seat to the personal drama of the backstage crew and to performers' skill, athleticism and artistry.
Those performances take center stage in the third episode, airing at 9 p.m. next Wednesday, which shows the flying trapeze artists at work in slow-motion that fully captures the lengths to which they will go for entertainment purposes. (It becomes clear in tonight's first hour that the performers are more willing to take risks while circus management tries to rein them in.)
The Big Apple Circus is a one-ring, European-style circus that uses only horses and dogs in its acts, with the goal of creating an intimate setting where no seat is more than 50 feet from the ring. The show travels only on the East Coast, and "Circus" follows the cast and crew over the course of the 2008 season.
Viewers meet and spend time with an array of circus folk, including twin jugglers Jake and Marty LaSalle, who grew up in Kennett Square, Chester County, and find themselves moving in different directions professionally and personally. Big Apple co-founder Paul Binder, who also serves as ringmaster, plans for the circus' future by retiring as artistic director and auditioning his ringmaster replacement. A new-to-the-Big Apple clown has a tough time breaking in, goes off his antidepressants, complains about other people and his desire to be alone and then gets upset when co-workers don't talk to him.
Larger-than-life characters and backstage drama are plentiful in "Circus," and that's even before a crew member calls in a bomb threat.
Ms. Chermayeff, a "Circus" executive producer, said she's drawn to subjects with "a high-stakes environment where human drama and challenges are inherent to the experience, a world within a world with its own upstairs and downstairs so that we could capture the high level of performance and artistry and talents, but also reveal the grit and substance of the hardworking crew that make the circus possible every day."
Producers considered other circuses to document but quickly found Big Apple best fit their goal to follow a group that lives together, eats together, performs together and travels together.
"One of our purposes in all of our series is to bring you into a world that you might not otherwise have an opportunity to be at," Ms. Chermayeff said at a PBS press conference in August.
"Circus" offers equal treatment to performers, stage crew and management, showing how a circus operates and the conflicts that inevitably erupt when 150 people share such close quarters, living out of trailers for months at a time.
Nowhere is that conflict more apparent than with the LaSalle twins. Their act requires both of them but during the year "Circus" covers, Jake applies to medical school and doesn't want to practice as much as Marty. At one point, the identical twins are barely speaking to one another.
They appeared to be on better terms at the PBS press conference this past summer, chatting with reporters afterward and recalling a performance at a juggling festival in Pittsburgh in 1997. The pair began performing at age 8 and both graduated from Columbia University in 2007.
"We knew from a pretty early age that this is something we wanted to do for a finite period of time," Jake said. "That was generally the understanding we had. So we were both preparing ourselves to retire from performance for several years before."
Jake is now in medical school at the University of California at San Francisco (he's leaning toward specializing in orthopedics and working with athletes and circus performers), and Marty works for Big Apple Circus in guest relations and business development.
"I'm at almost every single show, and I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction being around the audience," Marty said. "I don't have to be performing."
Jake said the pair don't rule out a return to the ring, but it probably won't ever again be their full-time focus.
"There were phases in my life where I thought this was something I could do forever and as a career but at the end of the day, I think I knew this is something I would retire from at a relatively young age," Jake said. "The Big Apple Circus is one of the best venues to work in in the world and where do you go from there? You might as well throw in the towel when you're at the top."