Paul Binder

If more reality TV were like Circus, there would probably be a lot fewer reality snobs out there. But Circus isn't a typical reality show. For one thing, this captivating six-hour series (airing over three Wednesdays, starting this week) is on PBS, so the proper way to describe it is probably "docu-reality," as the show goes behind the curtain of the Big Apple Circus to give a fly-on-the-tent look at the grit behind the glitter.

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Circus comes from the producers of the Emmy-winning Carrier, which took a similarly immersive approach to spotlighting the personal lives and daily grind of those who serve aboard an aircraft carrier. This engrossing new docu-series details the grueling routine, the rough conditions and the exhilarating process of putting together a show with a ground of nomadic vagabonds who come to feel like family — and many actually are related.

"It's more than a job. It's home, and it's food," says one of the brotherhood of ring crew workers. The circus is a magnet for runaway mavericks and outcasts, and one early subplot involves a potential bomb threat generated by one of the more aberrant workmen. But it's also a nurturing ground for artists and athletes who are always trying to measure up, whether on the trapeze or tightrope or not-so-simply trying to entertain the up-close-and-personal audience with a bit of inspired clowning.

We watch acts come together, as a newly hired clown hones his shtick under constant critical scrutiny, and sometimes the acts fall apart. Not all are invited to stay as the troupe plays the circuit en route to the real moneymaker: a months-long stint in Manhattan. "We are merchants of good humor," says the ringleader and co-founder Paul Binder, whose decision to leave the big top at the end of the 2008 season has emotional repercussions among the circus "family." The personal and economic pressures are at least as important to the world of Circus as the dynamic risks and rewards of the performances out front.

There are plenty of "wow" moments in the series, like the camera taking the point-of-view of a trapeze "catcher," but just as many small observations (a clown retrieving laundry between acts) that remind us that while the show must go on, so does life.

Circus is a series with an abundance of life, and reality. If you decide to run away from the regular network fare to join this company for the next few weeks, can't say I blame you.

Circus premieres Wednesday, Nov. 3, and runs through Nov. 17 on PBS, at 9/8c. (Check tvguide.com listings)

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