“And in case I don’t see you: good afternoon, good evening and good night!”
It’s one of the most memorable Jim Carrey lines, up there with “aaalrighty then” and “somebody stop me!” It’s also from the film that marked a turning point in his career from all-out, rubber-faced comedy to more dramatic fare, and which itself left a legacy that endures 20 years on.
The Truman Show was as big a hit with critics and audiences in 1998 as its eponymous, 24/7 broadcast about Carrey’s unwitting Truman Burbank. Riding along on his star power and boosted by rave reviews, the movie claimed the year’s 11th biggest worldwide box office. Comedy-drama, thriller, and above all social satire, it skewers showbiz and fame, corporate responsibility and religion, while questioning the very nature of reality, and whether it can be constructed.
Truman’s hometown, the creepily perfect Seahaven, is somewhere you’d surely never want to leave! Especially when a bridge out of town never gets finished and bad traffic, forest fires and power plant leaks conveniently block the roads just when you fancy a trip somewhere. The biggest barriers created to keep Truman in his constantly televised prison though, are psychological. His wife and mother push him into starting a family, best bud Marlon bigs up small town life, while show creator Christof, with the ability to control the set’s weather, even gives Truman a fear of open water by having his dad ‘drown’ while out sailing in a storm. Ultimately, his escape is motivated by his desire for free will and to choose the real world – even if that is, in Christof’s words, “the sick place. Seahaven is the way the world should be.”
The notion of the world in which we live being fake, a construct, has been explored in science fiction many times over the years. The master proponent of this is undoubtedly the author Philip K. Dick, and his most obvious influence on The Truman Show is 1959 novel Time Out Of Joint. Here, an American small town is simulated to keep protagonist Ragle Gumm predicting missile strike by Lunar colonists, thinking it merely a newspaper contest. Much like Truman he notice things aren’t right, such as a soft-drink stand replaced by a small slip of paper with its description on, and the walls of his illusion begin to come down.
A more direct inspiration for Truman was a 1989 episode of The Twilight Zone called ‘Special Service’, as a man discovers he’s being secretly filmed for a live TV show going out worldwide. Writer Andrew Niccol borrowed this conceit, which even includes a camera hidden behind a bathroom mirror, and expanded it. The film is not sci-fi. Truman is genuinely nobody special, he was selected as a baby and grew up to be a pretty regular guy. That’s what makes him a hero to the millions of viewers around the world, from bars to bathtubs.
Less than a year later, Ron Howard’s comedy EDtv arrived in cinemas, with the plot of… a man’s life being televised 24/7. The key difference was that Matthew McConaughey’s Ed chose to have cameramen follow him around everywhere. It was, in the wake of Truman, a box office flop.
After that, blockbusters from The Matrix to Michael Bay’s The Island would explore the concept of people being trapped in fake realities. In the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy, it was a computer simulation created by sentient machines – so humans could be stored in pods and harvested for energy. Michael Bay’s typically bombastic The Island (2005) saw Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson in a futuristic compound where inhabitants hope to win a lottery prize of a utopian life on ‘the island’. Turns out though they’re actually clones of rich people living in the outside world, waiting to be used for organ harvesting or surrogacy.
On the small screen, the turn of the century brought the birth of a pop culture phenomenon: Big Brother. First broadcast in the Netherlands in 1999, and going global (including the UK and US) in 2000, this new fly-on-the-wall reality show took audiences as close as possible to a real-life Truman Show, with dozens of hidden cameras and round-the-clock live coverage of the housemates. Yes, you could watch them do tasks, get drunk, speak in the Diary Room and get evicted – but you could also observe them just sitting around, using the bathroom and sleeping. Starting out as a televised social experiment about isolation from the outside world and current events and confined living conditions with strangers, Big Brother eventually became more about quirky characters seemingly obsessed with fame and viewers began to lose interest.
Later, other reality shows would branch out from this starting point – with game show elements in the likes of Survivor, The Apprentice and Love Island; hidden camera-based pranks in Trigger Happy TV and Punk’d which out unsuspecting members of the public (or celebrities) at the heart of the action; and more recently the ‘structured reality’ sub-genre. From Keeping Up With The Kardashians to The Only Way Is Essex, these shows centre around real people ‘as themselves’, but with situations and dialogue which is scripted. Much like The Truman Show, except here everyone is in on it.
Coming full circle after that Twilight Zone starting point, modern anthology shows like Black Mirror and Electric Dreams have explored similar concepts of constant surveillance and a questionable reality. With the intervening years heralding a rise in CCTV, virtual reality and social media, there are plenty of new angles The Truman Show, in its day, couldn’t satirise. But it definitely foresaw the coming prevalence of reality TV and society’s increasing anxiety and rejection of perceived invasions of our privacy by governments, police, intelligence services and – like in Truman’s case – corporate entities.
Many of the film’s themes – free will, self-determination, the pursuit of truth – remain achingly relevant today; perhaps more so in our post-truth era of ‘alternative facts’ and non-stop scrutiny via Twitter and Facebook. In fact, psychiatrists have even named a psychological condition the Truman Show delusion. In 2012, a paper was published about a form of psychosis in which “the patient believes he is being filmed, and that the films are broadcast for the entertainment of others.” Co-author Joel Gold had even treated one man who believed the 9/11 terror attacks were ‘a plot twist on his TV show’. Such examples are extreme and rare, but go to show that 1998’s seminal satire managed to simultaneously tap into a real fear and paranoia that existed, and create a story so vivid and compelling that its effects were far-reaching.