Stating that 2002 was 21 years ago is clearly inaccurate, except in the most literal sense. The captivating documentary “The Greatest Show Never Made” transports us back to that seemingly distant time, when reality TV was a novel and exhilarating concept. In this era, a man masquerading as a TV producer (or was he?) successfully attracted hundreds of potential contestants for a groundbreaking show that required them to commit to a year of their lives. The chosen few dutifully resigned from their jobs, terminated their leases, bid farewell to family and friends, and embarked on their exciting adventure, armed with passports as instructed. However, there was one significant hitch: the show, which tasked them with collectively earning one million pounds throughout the year, only existed within the producer Nikita Russian’s imagination.
Yes, his name was Nikita Russian, a detail that might raise eyebrows in hindsight, but the innocence of the year 2002 often overshadowed such obvious clues. It truly was a more innocent time, a period of collective naivety that many fondly remember. It had a certain sweetness to it.
“The Greatest Show Never Made” is a multi-layered narrative, with animated reenactments of pivotal moments and plot twists, executed in a whimsical style reminiscent of children’s ITV programming crossed with Wes Anderson’s distinctive approach. This artistic choice keeps viewers pleasantly off balance, which is the ideal mood to encounter this bizarre tale. The layers include archive footage from real shows of the era, like the first season of Big Brother and X Factor. Another layer consists of recollections from some of the contestants, revealing their aspirations to escape mundane jobs, secure a foothold in the entertainment industry, and taste a type of fame previously reserved for an elite few. Additional layers incorporate footage filmed during that time, primarily by one of the contestants, including moments featuring the charismatic Nik. At times, we witness the contestants in the present day watching their past footage, shaking their heads at their naivety and their unrelenting faith in the project until the evidence threatened to bury them. Another layer consists of testimony from Nik’s childhood friend Michael, who initially helped launch the project but parted ways when it became evident that Nik’s plans were little more than fantasies. Michael recalls Nik (or Keith, his true name) as a happy, creative boy until something derailed him during his teenage years.
Most intriguingly, we hear directly from Nik, now known as N Quentin Wolf (and one thing we can be certain of is his unfortunate choice of names). He vehemently maintains that it was never a scam, insisting he wanted to channel the energy expended in ultimately fruitless TV shows into helping people develop skills, establish a business, and amass wealth together. While it may sound like nonsense on paper, Wolf, still remarkably charismatic and appealing, even in his older, more subdued form, lends his words a gravitas and a sense of melancholy that makes it sound like the truth. Yet, that was always his gift. He takes partial responsibility and admits some remorse for the events that transpired, but he seems incapable of going the full distance—a recurring issue, perhaps.
“The Greatest Show Never Made” is a three-part series that initially presents itself in a lighthearted manner, offering the promise of a convoluted yet straightforward tale involving victims and villains to astonish us. The first episode largely delivers on this front. However, as the opening hour unfolds, the series delves into a profound and unexpectedly moving exploration of human desires for connection, fulfillment, and meaning, along with the accompanying vulnerability. It scrutinizes the notion of “following your dreams” and imbues that well-worn phrase with newfound significance. The victims, undeniably wronged in their time, managed to exact some retribution on Nik, and they now reflect on their peculiar experience and their younger selves with a sense of tranquility. Nik’s status as a clear-cut villain is significantly muddied by the series’ conclusion. The documentary as a whole is imbued with several rare qualities: tenderness, thoughtfulness, and perhaps even forgiveness. In sum, it’s quite a remarkable piece of work.