A Look Back: The Truman Show

Truman (irony alert!) Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives in an idyllic island community. Every day is sunny, and he lives in a picture perfect, crime-free town with perpetually friendly neighbors, a beautiful wife (Laura Linney) and a lifelong best friend (Noah Emmerich), who both have a penchant for doing product placement. Trouble is, he doesn’t realize what they’re doing. Trouble is, “Truman” is a real person but also a beloved TV show character who lives in a carefully managed, well, set, meaning his life is televised twenty-four seven. He was the first baby to be owned by a corporation, headed by the sinister, vaguely Steve Jobs-looking Christof (Ed Harris). Yet until he’s in his mid-thirties, he doesn’t realize this – not until a stray prop falls from down the sky. He’s treated like Chicken Little when he tries to get to the bottom of the real deal, but his fears are founded.

So Jim starts to get suspicious of many of the things he’s always taken for granted, such as why his wife holds up baking products up out of nowhere and delivers a monologue promoting them (the whole Laura Linney storyline is truly creepy, but the mechanics of such a marriage are left to the imagination). Not only that, but his believed-to-be-dead father appears babbling warnings and gets hustled away to who-knows-where. Because he (supposedly) died during a sweeps week, this triggers questions. Also, Jim is still carrying the torch for a college sweetheart (Natascha McEhlone) who also disappeared, and every day he dissects magazine photos hoping to reconstruct her face. Thus, the questions that come out of nowhere and alarm Laura and the rest of the cast. For example, why does a yellow van circle the block on a half hour dot? Why is the route to the ferry always blocked when he tries to drive up to it? But no satisfactory answers are forthcoming. Eventually, Jim tries to leave, scaring the wits out of Laura, and prompting her to consider divorce. He will manage to get off the island in the end, but what will his reaction be to meeting the man behind the curtain?

Why does the set-up work at all? How could Jim, a naïve but reasonably intelligent adult, not realize that his relationships are shams? Director Peter Weir in the guise of Ed’s character provides the answer, “We accept the reality we’re given.” “Reality” isn’t as static as we’d like to think. To the loyal viewers of the Truman Show, Truman is a long-time friend, but then we see how quickly they reach to change the channel once the drama dies down. “Real,” reality shows are far from genuine – probably far more is scripted than the viewers are aware of.  As soon as you start wondering how to manipulate the audience, seeing them as puppets, that’s when a reality show becomes pretty much just another TV show.

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