It seems today you can’t flip a channel without running into a show about competitive singing, competitive dancing, scavenger hunts, or just plain competitive living. Everyone from the airheads on The Jersey Shore to ordinary idiots pretending to live their lives on Big Brother want their every moves recorded so the whole world can see them on their TVs, laptops, tablets or their phones. In 1998 Australian filmmaker Peter Weir and New Zealand screenwriter Andrew Niccol warned us with American film “The Truman Show” starring Canadian Jim Carrey. This international talent pool made a brilliant satire of the rise of reality television by showing us a world willing to watch the life of an ordinary man 24/7. The catch is that man has no idea his whole life is a lie.
This movie came out when I was around 11 years and my family and I were living in South America but we would spend the summer back in Québec. I had zero interest in reality shows, but I loved Jim Carrey. Movies he had made in the early 90s such as “The Mask” and “Dumb and Dumber” made me laugh my ass off so I was looking forward to seeing his next movie. Little did I know this was one of the roles Carrey had been looking for to prove he could be a serious actor. My parents were definitely not fans of Carrey’s juvenile and manic humour, but clearly they knew something I don’t because they were just as eager as I to see “The Truman Show.” To be sure there are a few scenes when his character goes into crazy mode, which I had fun quoting later on, but for the most part this a much more restrained and powerful performance. It has to be, because the premise of his life is something straight out of The Twilight Zone.
Truman Burbank (Carrey) is living a seemingly ordinary life in the coastal town of Seahaven. He has a good job in the insurance business, a loving wife (Laura Linney), a best buddy (Noah Emmerich) and a mother (Holland Taylor) looking forward to grandchildren. Everyone in town loves Truman, beginning with his neighbors who enjoy his signature morning greeting. He is a modern-day James Stewart living in a perfect American town.
Yet Truman begins to notice something is amiss. For one thing, one morning a stage light falls from the sky. The news on the radio informs him it came from an airplane, but then Truman notices other things, such as the people driving around his house in a loop and the radio talking about his every move when he gets a bad transmission. Also, why is his wife always randomly showing him products from the store as though she was advertising them for an audience? When Truman decides to leave Seahaven, all the airlines are booked, the buses break down, a forest fire blocks the roads, and there is even a nuclear meltdown. It is as though God is conspiring to keep him in one place.
It turns out you are not paranoid if people are really watching you. Truman was the first child legally adopted by a corporation so his life could be watched all the time by thousands of cameras. Seahaven is not a town, but the world’s biggest TV studio. Everyone from his wife to his mailman is in on it. When he was a child Truman’s father had to fake his death by drowning in order to make Truman afraid of the ocean. When an extra (Natasha McElhone) falls in love with him and tries to reveal the truth she is banished from the show as though she had committed treason.
The architect of the show is Christof (Ed Harris) a beret-wearing director who lives in the studio’s moon, which is in fact a control room. Here is a clue you are dealing with an egotistical artist: he has only one name and thinks he is never wrong. In his mind there is nothing wrong with keeping a human being captive inside a giant dome and transmitting his every move to the rest of the world.
Then again, he lives in a world that condones his actions. The Truman Show is a ratings bonanza. Millions have watched Truman’s birth, his childhood and his marriage. If it boosts the ratings, the studio would probably even broadcast his death. When Truman tries to escape and the effects crew put his life in danger to force him to stay, Christoph barks “He will die on TV!”
Fortunately in real life no studio has ever gone this far in terms of filming people for reality shows. The closest I can think of is those Just for Laughs gags because the people never know they are being filmed until the gag is over. But you have to wonder, is money the only thing stopping the studios?
The fake town where Truman lives must have cost hundreds of millions of dollars and there was no guarantee the show would have been a hit. But if a studio knew it could afford to built it and legally get away with trapping a man inside a giant box, would they do it?
In today’s culture, who knows? In the years following the film’s release, we have seen the rise of the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo. There have also been cases of what psychiatrist in the United States and even the United Kingdom have called the Truman Show Delusion or the Truman syndrome. Schizophrenic patients believe their lives are television shows and some even think 9/11 was a plot twist in their lives.
Andrew Niccol’s response when he was told about the condition? “You know you’ve made it when you have a disease named after you.”