It may have been Descartes who first asked how we can trust that the world actually exists and that we’re not just being deceived by some evil genius. But it was writer Andrew Niccol who answered that question, in 1998’s The Truman Show: We don’t. And worse yet, that evil genius could work in television.
“We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented,” explains Christof (Ed Harris), the director of the show-within-the-movie of The Truman Show. Two decades since Jim Carrey’s dramatic turn playing the oblivious main character in a reality show fabricated around his life, The Truman Show continues to act as a digital-age Nostradamus. Critics described the film like a big-budget episode of The Twilight Zone when it premiered 20 years ago this week, but Truman garnered acclaim for the thoughtful way it broached unsexy topics like metaphysics, Christianity, utopia, artificial reality, and the power of mass media. The film even gave rise to an informal medical syndrome: the Truman Show delusion, the sufferers of which believe their lives are staged shows or that they’re being watched on camera.
Tim Burton, Brian De Palma, Terry Gilliam, Barry Sonnenfeld, and Steven Spielberg were all originally considered as directors (Niccol was viewed as too green at the time), but it was Peter Weir who won the job, due in no small part to having found success nearly ten years prior with Dead Poets Society, another movie that cast a comedic actor (Robin Williams) in a serious role.
Niccol would ultimately create close to 30 drafts and rewrites of the script, while Weir scouted locations, oversaw the design of Truman’s world (Norman Rockwell and mid-century Sears, Roebuck catalogues played a big inspiration), and waited a year for Jim Carrey to finish work on The Cable Guy and Liar Liar. Instead of shooting on sound stages at Universal, Weir’s wife suggested the master-planned resort community of Seaside, Florida, with a pastel and picturesque look that lent itself to sitcoms of the 1950s.
In 2018, The Truman Show still feels as authentic as ever — probably even more so now than when it debuted, considering the subsequent rise of reality TV, social media, artificial reality, and “fake news.” How accurately has this movie predicted the future? Let us count the ways.
Reality is now televised entertainment
TV shows featuring hidden cameras, real people, and unscripted situations have been around since Candid Camera and The Dating Game in the 1950s and ‘60s. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s, with the success of Survivor, Big Brother, and American Idol, that “reality television” entered the mainstream. (In recent seasons of Big Brother, you can even pay a subscription fee and watch the contestants 24 hours a day.)
Christof sums it up in the first scene of The Truman Show: “We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions … While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine.”
But unlike The Real World, where contestants know they’re on air, and talent shows that reward performances or behavior, Truman has no idea that every person he’s ever met is an actor and his entire world is a constructed set. He has been guided into his friendships, career, and marriage while 5,000 cameras watch Truman’s every move (save for sex, where “you never see anything … it’s always turn-the-camera and play music,” as a fan of the show within-the-movie bemoans).
If anything, The Truman Show might be closer to Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d or Spike TV’s Joe Schmo Show, where a single contestant believes he’s competing against others in a Big Brother--type program for a prize, but everyone else is actually in on the joke. Not that these programs were without consequences: According to Punk’d head attorney Jeffrey Schneider in a 2017 Huffington Post interview, every scene of the show that was filmed in California (there were a lot of them) broke the state’s hidden-recording laws; the state requires two-party consent and for people who are being taped to know they’re being taped. And at the end of the first season of The Joe Schmo Show, when the hoax was revealed to the show’s sole competitor, Matt Kennedy Gould, he cheered after receiving a check for $100,000 — then broke down in tears. “If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t do the show at all,” Gould told Entertainment Weekly in 2008.
Shows are explained by other shows
It isn’t until halfway through the movie that we’re given the scope of The Truman Show (“1.7 billion were there for his birth! 220 countries tuned in for his first step!”) and it arrives in the form of a meta show-within-the-show: TruTalk, a live companion program offering behind-the-scenes insight and a forum to discuss issues and recent events occurring within the show. Partly for us, to understand the bigger world that Truman exists in, and partly for the fictional audience within the movie, watching The Truman Show with us; in their homes, in bars, in bathtubs.
AMC’s Talking Dead, which recaps just-aired episodes of The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, launched in 2011 after TWD’s second season and features a similar format: A host and guests discuss the events of an episode that aired right before the talk show began. It’s a way to keep viewers tuned in and helps funnel tensions — especially if the show is known for killing off main characters or featuring giant plot twists. Talking Dead has since kicked off a wave of similar programs, for Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, Star Trek: Discovery, Stranger Things, and even after WWE wrestling matches.
Our news is routinely broadcast 24 hours a day
Ted Turner launched the first 24-hour all-news cable network in 1980 with CNN; the channel later became prominent during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, largely due to the fact that it was the only news outlet able to communicate from inside Iraq during the American bombing campaign’s initial hours, allowing for live reports and around-the-clock coverage.
Today, that constant coverage is the norm. At any time of day, you can tune to CNN or MSNBC or Fox News, whether there’s headline news being reported or not. Right- or left-wing political leanings provide confirmation bias for red or blue audiences as the channels choose what news, if any, they want to cover. It doesn’t really matter; the medium itself has become the message.
Similarly, Truman doesn’t have to necessarily be doing anything interesting — he could be eating or sleeping — and audiences still tune in. “We find many viewers leave him on all night, for comfort,” Christof says. What’s important is that he’s available 24 hours a day. Just as Truman is trapped in his own little world, so is his audience.
“Real” events are (maybe) staged
As viewers watching The Truman Show, we’re disoriented from the very beginning. The movie opens as a documentary (maybe an episode of TruTalk?) and fake credits introduce Jim Carrey as “Truman Burbank as himself” and Laura Linney as “Hannah Gill as Meryl.” Characters blatantly pitch products aloud, like the Chef’s Pal (“it’s a dicer, grater, peeler, all in one!”), while forced camera angles impose fake advertisements strong enough to break the fourth wall. A look back at Truman’s college days is presented as a flashback within the show itself, which we watch alongside other “viewers” tuned in to The Truman Show. Then there’s the creator, Christof, and his team who are directly choreographing the entire city.
After being bombarded with these multiple layers of narrative, we have to sift to figure out the truth. Who’s “real” and who’s pretending? When Truman becomes skeptical of his world and attempts to leave, we can already see through the roadblocks: bumper-to-bumper traffic that disperses as quickly as it suddenly appears, spontaneous “wildfires” that break out across country roads, a sudden leak at the nuclear-power plant. When you don’t trust the system, how can you trust the news?
Nowadays, people don’t. Jordan Peele demonstrated how easily his production company was able to ventriloquize Barack Obama using Adobe After Effects and a face-swap app to create photorealistic fake videos this past April. Meanwhile, the American public consistently has to challenge the false realities and fabrications presented by the current political administration. An extreme minority has gone so far as to doubt basic truths about the world today — from those who believe the Earth is flat, to conspiracy theorists claiming tragedies such as the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston bombing were staged, to anyone accusing mass-shooting victims of being “crisis actors.”
Digital surveillance is everywhere
It’s almost tradition for Americans to be paranoid about shadowy agencies or governments watching — and controlling — our lives. In the 1940s, we believed the Japanese were using radio waves. In the 1950s, the Soviets were thought to have satellites. In the 1970s, the CIA had supposedly planted computer chips in people’s brains. And in the 1990s, the ultimate power was through television, cameras, digital information, and the internet.
In The Truman Show, director Weir and cinematographer Peter Biziou researched surveillance techniques to get certain shots, and the film constantly bounces between security-camera footage and fish-eye lenses hidden on “actors” in the show and mounted on surfaces everywhere. Everything from the blocking of the actors to the rising of the sun in the film is controlled from a “lunar room” command center on the 221st floor of a gigantic man-made ecosphere (large enough to be seen from space) that houses the show.
Big Brother has gotten bigger than ever in the 21st century, with near unlimited surveillance through expanded satellite coverage, drone capabilities, and the fact that most of our personal and financial information is completely accessible through digital networks that are constantly hacked. The NSA, Google, and just about anyone else with the technology can track our movements and conversations — which they can use to incriminate someone just as easily as they can target us with ads. That is, when they’re not harvesting and selling our personal data.
Anyone can become famous doing everyday things
While the idea of living life under constant surveillance and scrutiny by an invisible audience of followers at all times may have been a nightmare in 1998, it’s become a reality in 2018. We each have the ability to broadcast our own life’s events, no matter how trivial or mundane, through livestreaming video capability on Facebook and Instagram, by posting photos of our food, or tweeting our every thought — even when our audience may only be the people in our daily lives.
The concept of celebrity itself has shifted from the inaccessible elite to the guy or girl next door. Hundreds, if not thousands, have carved out careers as vloggers or YouTube personalities. Others, including Justin Bieber and Kate Upton, were first discovered on social media. Talk shows are now as much about seeing actors play party games or pull pranks as they are about promoting new projects, and Twitter and Instagram feeds provide an unfiltered look at the lives and opinions of celebs. Sometimes to their detriment, as Roseanne Barr recently learned.
The Truman Show is presented without commercial interruption, relying solely on extensive product placement within the show. In real life, we don’t like having to break for ads either, so now they’re embedded in the content we view, as sponsored posts between our regular feed or through social-media influencers recommending products. “For me, there is no difference between a private life and a public life,” says Laura Linney’s character, who plays Truman’s wife.
Some people believe they’re being watched 24/7
In 2002, Bellevue Hospital attending psychiatrist Joel Gold treated a string of patients who believed they were being filmed. One reported having worked on the production team of a reality show that he realized was about him; another believed all of his friends and family were actors following scripts. A third traveled across the country to see if the Twin Towers were still standing, after suspecting the September 11 attacks to be a plot twist on his own “show.” Within two years, Gold had interviewed close to 50 patients. In 2012, he and his brother, Ian, a McGill University philosopher, published a paper in Cognitive Neuropsychiatry about what they were now calling the “Truman Show” delusion, a disorder where “the patient believes that he is being filmed, and that the films are being broadcast for the entertainment of others.”
The Truman Show didn’t solely cause these patients’ delusions, any more than Invasion of the Body Snatchers encouraged Communism paranoia or The Manchurian Candidate stoked Cold War fears. But like these films, The Truman Show clearly struck a nerve and anticipated the (many) anxieties of the coming era.