Welcome to Night Vale meets The Grand Budapest Hotel meets A Series of Unfortunate Events. The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), the latest podcast produced by Night Vale Presents, is certainly a mixed bag of atmospheres and influences. In a way, it is very much like their longest running and most well-known podcast Welcome to Night Vale. Just like WTNV, it is a show within a show. WTNV is both a radio show in a little town called Night Vale, a friendly desert community in a world where every conspiracy theory is true, and also the podcast that covers that fictional radio show. In the same way, The Orbiting Human Circus is a fictional radio show broadcast from the top of the Eiffel Tower that Julian the janitor craves to be a part of, and also the podcast which relates the happenings around the radio show. This format, however, the fact that they’re fiction about fiction, and that they’re both produced by Night Vale Presents, is pretty much what they have in common. Oh, and a canon non-straight protagonist, although Julian’s orientation has not played a role in the story so far. We’ll see in season two.
(Caution before reading: this review is not spoiler-free at all. The whole of season one is available for free wherever you listen to podcasts and is about three hours and a half long. Give it a listen if you can before reading this!)
The fact that The Orbiting Human Circus (TOHC for sake of brevity) is from Night Vale Presents should already say a lot. Four podcasts under their belt, and all of them flawless and so distinctly good at creating an atmosphere. The level of quality of Night Vale podcasts has always been outstanding and this one is no exception. What is an exception is that it wasn’t written by the same writers as the previous three. A completely different team for a completely different vibe. Unlike Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires, this isn’t all that creepy, but compensates this lack of what we’ve become used to from Night Vale Presents with all its immense creativity.
If fairy tales were based on the 1950s rather than Medieval times, this is what they would sound like. The African Orchestral, a bird that makes the sound of a full orchestra, a set of saws playing lovely music, floating above the audience, a machine that makes you hear the song of a cricket exactly like the cricket hears it, the Great Recitating Platypus, a mythical creature that visits little children’s dreams when they’re sick and recites poetry to make them feel better: for all the creatures this radio show presents in its acts, ‘circus’ is exactly right. The small glimpses that we catch of the radio show Julian the janitor would give anything to be a part of are as many windows to a supernatural world, just realistic enough to pull you into it and magical enough to make you wish you were part of it.
Throughout the season, the listener follows the adventures of Julian, the janitor of the Eiffel Tower, and his personal narrator who he made up in his head and who tells the story of everything he does. In addition to this double narration shared between sweet, sensitive Julian and the much more reasonable and critical narrator, there are also the many voices of the people involved with TOHC. From the stressed and more than a bit fake show host John Cameron to the strong assertive stage director Leticia Saltier, not to forget the stagehands Jacques and Pierre or the night watchman Coco, the cast is filled with strong performances and a wide range of personalities. Julian, unfortunate and more than a little bit shy, really wants to be part of the show. Since his childhood, when he escaped an abusive stepfather to run away to Paris to live with his great-grandfather, he’s always loved pretending that there was an audience with him and radio has been his big dream. He keeps trying to be part of the show and barging into the ballroom where it is recorded. The show host is less than convinced by his interruptions, however: Julian seems to ruin everything. Breaking the set to try to get near the microphone, losing the magical talking cricket, stealing the microphone, accidentally hypnotizing the whole cast and audience… His track record speaks for itself. This leads radio management into deciding to shackle a polar bear to the microphone in the studio to prevent Julian from reaching it and ruining the show once again. To everyone’s surprise (?), this doesn’t turn out to be the best idea in the world. The polar bear runs wild and injures members of the audience, running loose into Paris and terrorizing everyone. Julian tries to stop him but ends up injured at the hospital and, just when all hope seemed lost for him and for the show (who wants to keep a show running when it’s set loose a wild animal in the capital?), Julian gets visited by the Great Recitating Platypus who saves his life and grants him a wish, a wish that Julian uses to ask for an audience and restore the show to its initial popularity and save everything…
At least, that’s the story up until the last few minutes of the show so far. This may be because I’m an extremely gullible person in general and I never see this kind of things coming, but maybe you have and you know what I’m about to say: this wasn’t real. Or at least, it was all in Julian’s head. He’s a janitor on the Eiffel Tower, sure, but his boss who keeps complaining about him isn’t John Cameron the host of the Orbiting Human Circus, it’s Mr. Chouinard and there are no magical creatures, no show so popular that the entire world is listening, no radio cast who comes to learn Julian’s value and trust him. Every part of TOHC was invented by Julian in a fantasy world of his own.
This, for me, is where this podcast really shines, especially on a second listen. Of course, there was already nothing dull about TOHC as a radio show and the story was engaging and hooked me from the first episode already. But the emotional dimension added with the discovery that everything was just a product of Julian’s imagination adds such nuance and depth to his character. The important thing to note about Julian was that he was abused as a child. His father died and his stepfather was physically violent with him. As a coping mechanism, Julian began to imagine an audience cheering him on, always having his back, he began to imagine a narrator turning his life into something beautiful and special. He was forced to assume responsibilities from an early age and was beaten if he didn’t comply, but this world of imagination he created himself gave him the courage to flee home to go live with his great-grandfather. Even then, he was neglected, his great-grandfather, a famous hypnotist, often forgetting to feed him or send him to school. But even then, he found comfort in the city of Paris, in the Eiffel Tower (he mentions that his stepfather was afraid of heights and that he often found safety and quiet in high places to escape the abusive man), and most of all in his own mind. The Orbiting Human Circus, a whole radio show and its full narrative, is only the result of Julian’s deep loneliness.
This is nothing new, a piece of fiction completely twisting its whole perspective in the last few minutes of its run. Besides obvious examples, probably the most famous being Fight Club, even another podcast of Night Vale Presents did it before it: Within the Wires gives clues throughout the show that make former elements completely different from what they originally were, making the second listening a completely new experience just as enjoyable as the first one. Indeed, instead of appreciating TOHC as its own entity and with all its wonders, we can as an audience understand that this is all Julian’s coping mechanisms. Through this story he’s created in his own mind, Julian not only finds escapism from his dull life as an adult, but also re-explores his past trauma in the much more controlled setting of his imagination. It’s no surprise either that Julian is a very child-like character, innocent and curious, if also very naive. Abuse can have the effect of keeping the person who suffered from it from evolving beyond that stage of life and Julian still has the reactions of the little boy he used to be. He mentions being forced to clean all the time as a child, for example, and so when show host John Cameron is mad at him for one reason or another, the way Julian expresses his remorse is by cleaning Mr Cameron’s dressing room. Old habits forced upon you die hard.
Even the famous ‘acts’ presented on the radio show are evidence to his coping. In the world of TOHC, John Cameron finds wonderful acts that no one understands, that no one knows where he gets them from. Within this world he has created, Julian has found a way for him to express himself: he is the anonymous provider of all the acts. He found the bird that imitates a full orchestra, found the tap-dancing mouse, found the opera-singing flea, found everything and yet refuses to take credit for it. Even in a fantasy world, Julian struggles with self-esteem and can’t put himself at the forefront to get all the glory for himself. He gives himself great powers in that world, such as being able to hypnotize an entire ballroom, and yet he turns that great power into a shame and something that gets him cast out and almost fired. He is constantly giving himself much importance, and getting scared by it and putting himself back into place. He creates a wonderful show with amazing acts everyone wants to see, the most popular show on earth in his imagination, but he also situates himself as an outsider to this show who gets rejected every time he tries to have his part.
Even more than the acts, the creatures that defy logic and nature, the stories told in the show are what showcase Julian’s desire for kindness the best.
“If you see a mouse, and you look at it like you wanna hit it with a broom or you’re scared it has diseases, it’ll just run away from you! But if you love it, and you keep really still, it’ll come right up to you. How else are you gonna find out if a mouse can tap-dance?” − Julian the janitor
There are a few stories told on the radio show that perfectly illustrate Julian’s need to be treated with kindness and gentleness. From the angry Romanian doll-maker who finds peace learning that his dolls bring so much joy to all the children of the country to the story of Julian’s friend who learned to cope with his own abusive home by finding the exact musical rhythm to a happy life, not to forget the homeless Jewish man who saved Christmas for a sick little boy, all the stories seem to transmit the same core message that treating people with kindness is really the only way to bring out their full potential. Julian himself is thus re-exploring his need for kindness after being deprived from it for so long. His childhood trauma is a trigger for him to understand what really matters and express it in many different stories. A striking example of the stories being a coping mechanism for Julian is the polar bear attack: Julian pictures himself trying to soothe down the animal with gentleness, but ending up being assaulted by the bear and sent to the hospital in emergency. A realistic make-belief for a boy who has received nothing but strikes even when he did everything right.
Ultimately, what the podcast does is blurring the lines between what’s real and what isn’t. Again with me being gullible, but in the very first episode, there is a featured story of a woman talking about her childhood and her relationship with her mother and even though from the rest of the show it’s absolutely obvious that this is all fiction, my disbelief was suspended all the way through to the point that I wondered if that story wasn’t real after all. The voice acting really helps with this, of course, but more than once, there are stories that are told in such a realistic way that they could be stories that actually happened − a break from the magical creatures brought on the radio show. Even the commercials (much like Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires, TOHC cannot be paid by donations alone and contains ads from sponsors) are inserted and told in a way that they sound like part of the program itself. And if the lines between what is fiction and what isn’t are easily blurred, then of course, how much more easy is it to blur what’s part of Julian’s imagination and what isn’t? Even the conclusion of the first season is Julian making the wish that his audience was real and with thousands of followers and fans across the world listening to the podcast, wasn’t he granted exactly that?
Overall, TOHC is just like all Night Vale podcasts, strongly steeped in the personality of its point of view character. Much like Welcome to Night Vale is heartwarming and nurturing, albeit very weird and following ridiculous rules, like Cecil himself, or Alice Isn’t Dead is scattered and scary like Keisha, total opposite to Within the Wires which is contained and focused like Hester, The Orbiting Human Circus is tentative, immensely creative, and not quite sure where the line between fiction and real life is set. Another strong production from Night Vale Presents and this writer cannot wait for season two!