Rewatching The Truman Show in the Age of the Reality TV President
One of the most important lessons of the Trump presidency is the power of propaganda masquerading as entertainment. Make no mistake, Donald Trump ascended to the Oval Office because of his history of carnival barking in tabloids, books, and on reality television, not in spite of it. He also took on the role of Twitter troll rather adeptly. Trump is a reality TV president for a reality TV age. I think about this connection a great deal and have written about it before. This time, those thoughts coincided with my rewatching of The Truman Show.
The Truman Show, released in 1998, stars Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, who unknowingly has been the star of the most popular television show in the world: a 24/7, non-stop broadcast of every day of his life since he was in the womb. It’s an incredibly sinister premise that’s masked by the film’s light tone. The Truman Show is a horror movie set in a terrifying dystopia. I didn’t really see or understand that during my earlier viewings. Reality TV had to truly come of age to bring that message home to me.
Constant surveillance. There’s something inherently fascistic about it. To be observed is to be controlled. That is the premise behind the panopticon — the system of surveillance posited by 18th century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham conceived of a circular prison in which all the inmates were able to be observed from a central guard tower. The prisoners were unable to see into the guardroom and had to assume it was always manned. The only way for inmates to confirm they were being watched was to commit an infraction and risk severe punishment. Surveillance (real or perceived) coerces obedience.
The Truman Show is set in a perfectly conceived panopticon: a massive film studio constructed under a dome that can be seen from space. The set, fitted with 5,000 hidden cameras, is the fictional community of Seahaven Island, and the water surrounding it functions as a moat preventing escape. The panopticon was designed to contain one prisoner: Truman. There are actors he believes are his family and friends, who function as guards. As the film progresses, we learn that one of the prime directives of the show is to prevent Truman from ever wanting to leave Seahaven Island. His childhood ambition to become an explorer is crushed by a teacher, who tells him, glibly, that everywhere has already been discovered. A particularly evil machination was the show’s producers staging Truman’s father being washed away at sea in front of a young Truman. Truman had begged his father to take him out sailing even though a storm was coming. He blamed himself for his father’s death and developed severe aquaphobia as a result of the trauma. He became too afraid to go out to sea or even drive over water on a bridge. His prison was psychological, and it required manipulating and lying to him since birth.
The 1998 release of The Truman Show coincided with the early stages of the explosion of reality TV that went on to shape the entertainment landscape of the 2000s. MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules dominated the genre, but the formula for getting the drama on screen was still evolving and being tinkered with. Survivor hadn’t started airing yet. The Osbournes was years away from shattering the notion that proper celebrities, who had already made their names in entertainment, would participate in the genre. The Learning Channel and Bravo hadn’t jettisoned all of their educational and cultural programming for schedules filled almost entirely with reality TV. MTV, the pioneers who popularized the genre, were just starting to phase out music videos, news, and scripted programming and replace it with an almost non-stop stream of people in their twenties being messy on camera. The Truman Show saw it all coming in a way. Andrew Niccol’s script was remarkably prescient about the outsized role reality TV would come to play in the world. The film also got it right that “reality” had to be controlled in order to package it as entertainment and that this control and the expectations it engenders make that fishbowl a prison.
The architect of Truman’s prison was a reclusive television producer named Cristof, played by Ed Harris. The Truman Show was his magnum opus — the work of a monomaniacal, towering narcissist, who gave himself license to control and surveil another human for thirty years in order to package that human being’s life to be consumed as entertainment. While introducing a rare interview with Christof, a journalist reveals that Truman was the first person ever to be adopted by a corporation. That’s something else the film stumbled on that I’m not sure was intentional: the legal fiction of corporate personhood evolving so companies could take on the real roles and protections of human individuals. In a way, The Truman Show figured out the grotesquery of “corporations are people” was lurking around the corner. Christof loomed even larger than a parent, though. He was the unseen god who created Seahaven Island — the only world Truman knew.
Christof was a stickler for detail, and the set was meticulously crafted and scrupulously neat. The tidiness is the main thing the film missed the mark on: the assumption that turn-of-the-millenium audiences would be riveted by a town filled with 1950s sitcom characters and sensibilities, that we’d care about and give our attention to a decent person like Truman. Reality TV, we’ve learned, is about mess. There are no quiet beers with your best friend as you muse about life’s disappointments. There are yelling matches, thrown drinks, and slap fights. There is no quiet dignity, only desperate clawing for more and more attention.
At its heart, celebrity is about an individual’s ability to seize and hold the public’s attention. The reality TV era removed any misconception that talent had to be a major factor in that equation. Spectacle has always been a part of celebrity culture, but that spectacle was meant to be aspirational — something that set the lucky few above the huddled masses. Falling down drunk and sobbing dramatically in toilets weren’t obvious paths to stardom until the 2000s. Celebrity has always had a seamy underbelly, and the tension between the public images and secret lives drove some of the public’s interest. Until the reality boom, though, it never occurred to television executives that the spectacle could be a real brawl in a club or bitchy catfights between housemates, perhaps because they couldn’t imagine that anyone would debase themselves on camera that way.
Truman was lied to and gaslit for 30 years. In order for the depiction of his life to be “real,” he couldn’t know he was being watched. Lurking somewhere in there is the presumption that a psychological and physical prison had to be constructed around him, because nobody would volunteer for his life. Yes, they would, we’ve learned. They would in droves. Even in 1998, there was enough evidence of that to have undermined the notion that viewers’ empathy would put them in Truman’s shoes, and they would want him to be free. We know now that there are hordes of people who would see the panopticon Christof constructed and do almost anything to be locked inside, as long as we were watching, as long as they were being paid attention to by as many people as possible. We also know now that there are millions of people who would watch devotedly.
Observation affects any system being observed. It’s one of the pitfalls of any experiment. A stage light falling from the heavens and crashing onto the street near Truman prods awake his dormant feeling that something in his life isn’t right. Flashbacks show fans infiltrating the set and trying to meet Truman. Christof and his team coached the actors Truman believed were his family and friends through explaining the anomalies away and sweeping them under the rug. Truman’s credulity had to be preserved. More importantly, his free will had to be bent to serve Christof’s narrative.
Truman’s love interest was scripted to be a blonde cheerleader named Meryl, played by Laura Linney. When Sylvia (Natasha McElhone), an extra, catches Truman’s eye, she can’t go through with lying to him, and tells him his whole life is fake. The truth is dismissed as “crazy” — a schizophrenic episode, the rants of an ill young woman. As Sylvia’s “father” trundles her into the car to disappear her, he tells Truman they’re moving to Fiji. That throwaway ad lib from a fixer trying to keep the show running planted the kernel of Truman’s plans to escape to the tropical paradise and set in motion the collapse of the fictional world Christof created. Truman marries Meryl as Christof planned, but he never forgets Sylvia, and uses images ripped from fashion magazines to try to recreate her face. It’s emotionally devastating when you think about it. And the world watched.
The viewers of The Truman Show don’t receive much scrutiny in the story. They’re a cheerleading section. They love Truman, but beyond that they are left largely uninterrogated. What sort of a person hears that a child is being taken by a corporation, handed over to paid actors to raise him in a fake town filled with fake denizens, where his life will be broadcast 24/7 in transmissions filled with product placements and just watches? For entertainment? Everything on the show — the whole backdrop of Truman’s life — from the clothes to the furniture to the houses to the appliances are for sale in a hugely profitable catalog. A person’s whole life was turned into entertainment and a canvas for advertising without his consent. What does that say about the audience watching raptly and calling up to place orders for merchandise? What sort of monster would watch a child be lied to about everything? What warped mind wouldn’t bail out after the show killed off the father in front of a child who thought all of it was real? It’s an uneasy feeling to know that if some version of The Truman Show featuring all the same moral failures were aired today, it would likely find a large audience. In fact, the moral failures might be the draw.
Reality TV isn’t real, but it’s a real enough reflection of society to matter. Our attention can empower and transform. Christof understood that. That’s what separates him from his counterparts in the real world. As monstrous as what he did was, at least he respected the power of his medium, at least he understood that the quality of the end product mattered. It’s part of the reason Christof created such a carefully controlled environment. I don’t think reality TV producers care about much more than putting drama and mess on screen for people to gawk at. The Truman Show created an experience, an escape, an idealized version of reality. Seahaven Island was supposed to be better than the real lives and communities of the viewers. Most reality TV shows cast astonishingly shameless people and contrive reasons to sequester them together in volatile situations. The viewers watching The Truman Show reflect back the values Christof presented to them. They are deeply invested in Truman and his life. They also have no qualms about the immorality of what’s happening on screen in front of them. It doesn’t seem to cross any of their minds. Truman is important. He’s famous. He entertains them. That makes everything else happening all right. “Everyone’s in on it.” Truman says that at one point after he starts to realize how life on Seahaven Island is choreographed around him. Yes, everyone was in on it. Including the audience. Without them, the show would have fallen in the ratings and been cancelled. Truman’s trauma would never have begun if they hadn’t watched in the first place.
Who and what we give our attention to matters. It elevates people. The Apprentice rehabilitated Donald Trump’s image. He was a playboy with a string of failed ventures and tabloid spectacles strewn behind him. He wasn’t taken seriously until The Apprentice painted him as a tough, savvy businessman and a strong leader, and enough people fell for it to make him the president of the United States. A reality show did that. Entertainment shapes culture. Culture shapes society. Entertainment is also information. I think that’s something a lot of us underestimated. People who are susceptible to accepting low quality information believe much of what they see on reality TV. Christof understood that. Donald Trump understands that. Too many of us still don’t. The Trump administration is a fascist project that is a danger to every person on the planet. They’re also producing a tacky, vulgar, and increasingly violent reality TV show. Enablers in media, who didn’t have the sense to cut away from an empty podium, juiced the ratings for them.
When Christof’s smoke and mirrors stop working on Truman, he becomes unpredictable, and his changed behavior reveals even more cracks as the intricate choreography around him begins to slip. The campaign of gaslighting shifts into a higher gear, and he’s told he’s having a breakdown. Panicking and trying to deflect from his questions, Meryl turns to face camera, launches into one of her product placement spiels, while holding up a can of cocoa and grinning almost maniacally. “Who are you talking to?” Truman exclaims, looking around, unable to make sense of what’s happening. That’s what it’s like watching Trump and his cast of confederates sometimes. That moment with them all posing awkwardly with the Goya beans made me think of Truman and Meryl in the kitchen Truman doesn’t know is part of a set having two completely different conversations, because one person is trying to get to the truth while the other’s lies are collapsing. Who was Meryl talking to? People who were in on it, and Truman wasn’t. Who was Trump and his gang talking to when they posed with those Goya products? People who are in on it. If you’re not in that group and don’t want to be part of the audience, it can start to feel like reality has no meaning. The gaslighting and lies take a toll.
How will it end? When Sylvia meets Truman, a button pinned to her sweater bears that slogan. Truman’s story ends with him learning that, yes, his whole life has been a lie. He overcomes his fear of water to sail to the edge of the studio (Christof tries to drown him along the way). His boat crashes into the “horizon” and Christof’s voice as god’s finally tells Truman the truth. Christof — ever the narcissist — believes Truman needs him and will stay in the ecosystem of lies he created. Truman says his tag line one last time, takes a bow, and exits into the unknown of the real world. The viewers cheer. Then they change the channel. We can’t. Neither could Truman. The unspeakable damage of learning his whole life was a lie isn’t captured in the film. Neither is the work of trying to build his own identity. Trump won’t be in office forever. When he exits stage left, the damage he’s done will remain and may take generations to repair.
The most important thing The Truman Show got right is that reality TV would evolve to become exploitative, dishonest, and unethical and create a bizarre dystopian prison its architects demand we all pretend is something else. With the rise of a reality TV American president, the term “captive audience” has taken on new meaning. The ridiculous, insecure, spray-tanned, failed businessman turned reality personality must be paid attention to. Trump isn’t Truman, though. He’s Christof. At least he wants to be, so he can have the power to “cue the sun.” He also covets beyond measure the kind of attention Truman received. It’s a dangerous combination. How will it end? Badly, I predict.
A version of this essay was originally published on my Patreon.