One evening, post deadlines and pre-Christmas, I was with my family scrolling through Netflix when I stumbled upon a familiar, but sadly forgotten classic: The Truman Show. I watched the film years ago, but hadn’t seen it in what felt like an age. My fifteen year old brother read the description and was intrigued, but as my parents had also seen it, we decided to watch something else. Nonetheless, it was agreed that my brother and I would watch this film during the holidays. Fast forward to after Christmas and before the New Year, the weird week where you really have nothing to do but put off things, and we inevitably found an evening to watch the film.
Arguably one of Jim Carrey’s best movies, and perhaps his most underrated, The Truman Show follows the life of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), a young American man with a content but rather mediocre life. There is only one exception: Truman is the star of his very own reality tv show, his life broadcast to billions of people around the world every single day, from the very moment he was born; and he has absolutely no idea.
The film is clever with its direction, flicking between Truman’s perfectly orchestrated life and the audience (aka the rest of the world). We also get glimpses of the team of ambitious network producers and the show’s cunning creator, Christof (Ed Harris). Everything and everyone in Truman’s life is controlled by this man: from the woman he is married to, Hannah Gill (Laura Linney) to the friends he has. The people he greets on the streets are extras; his best friend no more than a paid cast member.
Yet, it isn’t long before Truman becomes bored with his life, growing increasingly suspicious of the perfection that has been created around him, resulting in an increasing desire to travel the world. This poses a serious problem for the show, and the battle between Truman and reality begins, as we see his world slowly unravel.
The idea that such a TV show could ever be pulled off in real life almost sounds as preposterous as it did over twenty years ago. Almost, but not quite. Today, reality television has the power to make ordinary people into huge stars, from Lauren Speed and Cameron Hamilton in Love is Blind to the reality TV royalty like the Kardashians.
At first, I thought I was overthinking things. Then I did some research, and my suspicions were confirmed. I was not the only one who noticed the film’s frightening relevance in today’s attention based economy. The Truman Show unintentionally predicted a phenomenon that was all but a year away: Big Brother premiered just a year later, and the noughties saw an explosion in reality TV from American Idol to Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Now the genre boasts a range of show to choose from, with even the most uptight people sneaking a peak of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! To top it all off, one of the articles I read about the dangers of reality television showed off an advert for Hayu, a streaming service where one could watch the Kardashians at any time; the irony simultaneously amused and terrified me.
One may ask, what has this got to do with The Truman Show? After all, all those people knew that they were going to be filmed, didn’t they? Perhaps, but in many cases, they were wholly unaware of the repercussions of fame that would follow. The stories of people being coerced into acting a certain way on camera, or ruthless producers invading the private spaces of people, are endless. The media scrutiny leading up to Love Island presenter Caroline Flack’s tragic suicide has been widely condemned, but sadly one of a number of suicides associated with the hit reality show.
Indeed, some celebrities have gone as far to say that they’ve needed therapy and aftercare, but were denied such resources. The very idea that one would need aftercare following their time on a reality tv show is in itself a disturbing thought. Over recent years, an increasing number of former reality television stars have spoken up about their treatment and how they were never fully informed about what they were truly getting into; a sentiment that could easily be shared by the actors in Truman Burbank’s life.
The film not only predicted the success of reality television itself, but the ways in which it would be consumed and analysed too. In the movie, the show is shown to be on air 24/7; we now have live streaming (as well as YouTube) where you can watch anything at any time you want. There is also a show purely to analyse The Truman Show itself called TruTalk. Today, a number of reality television shows have similar companion shows, such as Love Island: Aftersun. Furthermore, the power of the producers, show creator, and the corporation behind the show are eerily familiar to the controls over entertainment that Netflix and Amazon Prime have today.
To say that all of reality television has become like The Truman Show would be an overstatement. Yet, the fact that the entertainment we consume today resembles remotely anything like it should be enough to scare us. Reality television is a part of our lives now, and it is a genre that can still bring light-hearted fun to many. However, if we don’t hold these shows accountable, there will be a day when Truman Burbank will no longer be a character from an absurd dramedy, but a potential reality.
Image: Noemi Nuñez via Wikimedia Commons