I adore Welcome to Night Vale and love Alice Isn’t Dead, and… well, I was really disinterested in the first episode of Within the Wires, and never listened past that. However, the moment I heard the name of Night Vale Presents‘s latest podcast, The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air, I was intrigued. So one day on my way to work I downloaded the podcast and proceeded to give it a listen. While it is as wondrous, strange, and enchanting as many of the Night Vale Presents podcasts are, I felt like it was really lacking comparatively. The biggest issue was sadly something that Night Vale Presents has otherwise really been known for—diversity.
Spoilers for The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air after the jump.
In all of the Night Vale Presents podcasts, there are a plethora of diverse characters. (Even though I haven’t listened to Within the Wires, I’m told it also features a lesbian couple.) Welcome to Night Vale has the most diverse cast largely because it is about a town rather than one person or a small group of people. The podcast’s host, Cecil, is of ambiguous race and is an openly gay character in love with Carlos, a queer character of color. There are also numerous side characters such as Janice, who is disabled, or Tamika and Dana, who are both women of color. Alice Isn’t Dead is mostly about Keisha, a female truck driver looking for her wife Alice. Both Alice and Keisha are queer and Keisha, our main character, is both a woman of color and disabled. As a queer disabled woman, it is incredibly nice to find shows with characters like myself, which realistically reflect our diverse world. The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air, despite its wonders, does not openly do this.
First, let me talk a little about The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air. This podcast is about Julian, the janitor at the Eiffel Tower, who desperately wants to be a part of The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air, a mysterious variety show that is broadcast from the top of the Tower. He often sneaks around the set or crashes the show, much to the annoyance of the staff and the host of the show, John Cameron. The variety show is filled with strange and mysterious things like saws that play music, magical birds that can mimic an entire orchestra, and a feature presentation at the end that is usually some surreal and fascinating story. Julian wants very much to be a part of this show, but doesn’t really have a talent to speak of, gets scared when speaking in front of a microphone, and certainly doesn’t endear himself to the host when he’s constantly sneaking around set. Listeners get the sense that Julian’s life has not been an easy one and he seems to have been abused by his family. To escape the abuse, Julian would pretend he was the host of The Orbiting Human Circus. Julian is still lonely and has very few friends, and so has created an imaginary host who narrates his life as well, and often acts as his conscience. This is not to be confused with the actual radio show he loves; Julian is not creating The Orbiting Human Circus—just wishing his life were as glamorous as the show.
I’ll be honest and say that I’m often confused by the podcast itself. After I listened to the first episode I was intrigued and wanted to listen to more, but it was a really disorienting show to listen to. There were times I really wasn’t sure what was going on and there seemed to be no clear plot other than “there’s a weird variety show and a janitor who is obsessed with said show, but is a fuck-up”. I’m still not even certain what time period this takes place in or even really what genre it’s meant to be. The way Julian’s fake narrator talks sounds like an old-timey radio host, and The Orbiting Human Circus’s broadcasts sound like grainy old radio broadcasts too, making me think that this takes place in the past.
However, based on the title, I assumed that The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air was actually, you know, hovering in the air above the Eiffel Tower, which made me think it was some futuristic thing or at least some sort of steampunk-esque show. After beginning to listen to it, this still seemed possible; after all, the host of the show, John Cameron, only ever says they are broadcasting from the top of the Eiffel Tower. However, after doing more research I discovered that the fictional variety show does broadcast from the literal top floors of the Eiffel Tower and not above it. Maybe I was just expecting something different from it than I actually got and because I was projecting what I thought it would be about, that made it more confusing for me. Either way, the podcast is so frustratingly vague and confusing that I don’t look forward to updates from this podcast the way I did with Welcome to Night Vale or Alice Isn’t Dead.
There are four well-established characters in this podcast: Julian, Leticia, Jacques, and John Cameron. Leticia is the stage manager who hates Julian, and Jacques is a brusque stagehand who puts up with Julian, but doesn’t seem to particularly like him either. John Cameron, as I stated earlier, is the host of the show and though he always seems calm on stage, he often appears to be frustrated and has something of a temper, at least with Julian. And that is the most I could really say about any of the characters. We don’t know much about them other than that, so while they are more developed than some other side characters, they aren’t really developed that much.
Julian, our main character, is kind of like Charlie Brown; everyone hates him and nothing really goes right for him so you feel bad for him. At first, this pitifulness makes all the other characters seem somewhat mean and heartless for treating him the way they do. Unlike Charlie Brown, however, Julian is really annoying and not often shown in a good light. His constant fuck-ups are often (not always, but often) his own fault, and you can understand why all the other characters hate him because he really does seem to seriously screw up something with the show dramatically every time. Even Julian himself seems to realize this, as the narrator he made up constantly points out to him when he is doing something that will inevitably mess up things on the show and make the other characters upset with him, but he always does it anyway. Now I enjoy a self-destructive character as much as the next woman—it’s why I watch Iron Man—but Julian has very few qualities to endear himself to the audience. His attempts to be on the show often just come off as desperate and he acts in a manner that is often very creepy, like listening to people through the ventilation system or breaking into John Cameron’s dressing room. So again, you feel bad for Julian, but it’s also really hard to actually like him.
Despite all this, I do still enjoy the podcast. There is something of a mystery as to where John Cameron gets the acts for the show and I am interested in understanding more about Julian’s past and why he is the way he is. However, what I really enjoyed most about the podcast was the stories told as a part of the podcast, especially the show’s feature presentation, which is usually some strange or weird story that is played at the end. I don’t want to say too much about those stories because they really are very good, but I will say that my favorite story is one that Julian tells about a boy who realized that good and bad things that happened had a rhythm, and he learned he could change that rhythm if he tried. It was a beautiful and fascinating story and I found myself listening to that particular episode again just to hear it. But listening to the podcast for just these short stories seems kind of like listening to Welcome to Night Vale only for the weather. That really is a major storytelling issue.
Now let’s discuss the diversity issue. Usually Night Vale Presents’s podcasts hint at ethnicity by using the names of the characters or physical descriptions of the characters. Since all of the characters in the Orbiting Human Circus of the Air are French, there is no way to know if any of them are people of color just by their name, and the characters’ physical appearances have not really been described. There is also no romance or sexual interest that’s really been hinted at between the characters to show any type of sexual preferences. There has been some mention that maybe Leticia and Jacques like each other, but nothing substantial, and even so it would still be a heterosexual relationship. Leticia is also the only female character in the cast, and so far the only character (a very minor character) that has been explicitly shown to not be white was referred to as a “gypsy” guitar player. Gypsy is actually a racial slur for the Romani people and regardless of the time period it’s set in, it’s a huge issue that the show would use terminology like that.
The most diversity that there could be is disability. Julian, as I already stated, seems to have endured an abusive childhood and doesn’t currently have the best life either, so imagines his life being narrated by an imaginary host to cope. However, coping mechanisms don’t automatically show that someone has a disability, and Julian does seem to be aware that he is imagining this narrator and doesn’t actually think he really is the main character on a radio show. The show could use Julian to depict a highly anxious character struggling with his social anxiety, but since the show also never really shows Julian in a good light, it leads us as the audience to simply find him annoying. So if he is supposed to be a character with extreme social anxiety, the show doesn’t do much to get the audience to empathize with him or understand him. And again, there has never been any concrete evidence of any sort of disability on top of all this.
Overall, The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air is really interesting and beautifully put together, but it is also extremely confusing, has no discernible plot, has given barely any details about the characters, and has very little diversity. There are things I enjoy about this podcast—I’m still listening to it—but I can’t for the life of me understand why so many people seem to like it. It is certainly not better than Welcome to Night Vale or Alice Isn’t Dead. Out of all of the Night Vale Presents podcasts, it is the weakest when it comes to diversity, and considering the season is halfway done already, it doesn’t seem like anything will improve any time soon. What do you think? Do you like The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air, and why or why not? Let me know in the comments.