What is this mode of perception, so different from ordinary perception that it is well described as madness? How is it that when you fall in love you feel as if suddenly you are seeing the world as it really is? A mood of knowledge floats out over your life. You seem to know what is real and what is not. Something is lifting you toward an understanding so complete and clear it makes you jubilant. This mood is no delusion, in Sokrates’ belief. It is a glance down into time, at realities you once knew, as staggeringly beautiful as the glance of your beloved.– Anne Carson, Eros: The Bittersweet.
A very natural and easy dialectic exists between The Truman Show (1998) and the bloom of reality television (The Real World debuted in 1992). Edward Guthmann, in the San Francisco Chronicle, called The Truman Show a “lament for a society that has lost its soul to technology and rote consumerism.” Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, wondered “What if our taste for trivia and voyeurism led to the purgatory of a whole life lived as show-biz illusion?” (Today I think we’d call that concern trolling.) But in 2020, the comparison quickly falls flat. Yes, “The Truman Show” is, technically, a reality show, but it simply doesn’t occupy the same place in the fictive audiences’ collective psyche as shows like Big Brother do and did. Yes, both shows are voyeuristic, but “The Truman Show” trades in constrained domesticity, while Big Brother and The Real World and other landmark reality TV shows of the era dealt in brilliant chaos. (A closer analogy would probably be Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which has largely managed to swing the best of both worlds). And “The Truman Show” is especially distinct from the newer iteration of reality TV shows: Life Below Zero, Mexican Dynasties, Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club, which are more like infomercials—a.k.a. television in the truest sense of the word—than anything else.
Although some reviewers forced the question, The Truman Show itself doesn’t bother making any commentary on the viewers, or the society in which something like “The Truman Show” could arise. Which is an interesting omission, because any meaningful discussion of TV necessitates at least a modest grappling with its audience, its viewership. Who is this for? But by rendering “The Truman Show” a global phenomenon—Trumania knows no borders—the film sidesteps the question of “How could this happen?” entirely, or at least suggests that the universal appeal of “The Truman Show” makes such a question irrelevant, or unanswerable. Reality TV as it actually is—a distinct product of certain indulgences in our society—brokers some negotiation between fiction and reality without fundamentally questioning the boundaries of either. ‘Is it real? Or is it fake?’ is the kind of dichotomy that any net native would roll their eyes at. Imagine the Boomer offering his inane wisdom to the teen watching re-runs of Jersey Shore: You know all that stuff’s scripted, right?
No, The Truman Show doesn’t offer much of a critique on our chosen sources of entertainment, nor is the movie seeking to suggest that fiction sometimes masquerades as reality, or that our realities are constructed by our predilection for narrative (imagine that!). The more critical argument being made is that intuition—the lines of motive and impulse and perception that run beneath thought—are an island of pure truth in a totally prefab world. Truman, who is on the precipice of ultimate self-discovery, if only he has the guts, queries God: “Was any of it real?” and God answers confidently, a true believer in the authenticity of his creation: “You were real, Truman.” The external manifestations of our inner workings—speech, body language, action, etc—often have the feel of a shadowy inevitability, an unavoidable emergence, akin to the cheery, creepy greeting that Truman offers his neighbors every morning: scripted. But beneath all that is a force that’s deeper, a drive that’s less articulable, a thread that yokes our own innumerable self-fabrications to capital-T Truth.
And I think that force might be romantic love!
Christof, the Executive Producer of “The Truman Show,”, believes that the reappearance of Truman’s father is what planted the seed of doubt that will blossom into Truman’s self-awareness, that the father is the genie that must be put back in the bottle. But Christoff’s ultimate failure to do so clearly indicates that he was barking up the wrong tree.
To any astute viewer, or at least one not blinded by the fatherly love that Christof feels for Truman, much more taut are the scenes of Truman’s college days, rendered helpfully in the soft yellowish light of nostalgia, when his arranged marriage to Laura Linney is almost torn asunder by the shy glance of a beautiful blonde across the Quad—an extra, an actress without lines, something unforeseen. Their romance, which consists of three or four chance meetings of the eyes and one stolen kiss on the beach, stays with Truman for more than a decade, and it is his memory of her, his memory of something real—he desperately clutches the red sweater she left behind on the beach—that gives him the strength to sail across the sea and leave his habitat. Their connection, Truman’s brush with the true, and not the doubt triggered by the melodramatic reappearance of his father, nor the external pressure of the watchful audience, is the atmospheric disturbance by which his intuition—his gut sense that something isn’t right—could ultimately precipitate into willful action.
Friend, take good, sweet, generous care of yourself during these tumultuous times: you deserve the truth, and the truth is that you’re a star.