January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

The Learning Channel (Sun., Feb. 2, 9 p.m. ET)


Because our era likes to consider itself sensitive to the plight of the differently abled, a documentary about circus sideshows and their cast members is going to have a hard time establishing the right tone. How to be unflinching but not voyeuristic? Those people, once referred to as freaks, must today be accorded their dignity. But it’s precisely that freakishness—and not the chance to reflect on the human condition—that will draw viewers, just as it lured gawking crowds in the sideshow’s heyday earlier in the century. One approach could have been to let such retired performers as Jeanie Tomaini, who was born without legs, and the mossy-bearded Percilla the Monkey Girl do the talking. Remembering the sideshow years, they give a grim nod to economic necessity (how else were they to make a living?) yet cling to hard-won professional pride. They’re fascinating for what they say. What Sideshow gives us mostly, though, is narration, delivered by Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander in a tone of chuckling amazement. You’d think he was watching chicks in an incubator.

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