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Credit: Paramount Pictures

The Americana horror of The Truman Show

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Jan 10, 2020, 3:21 PM EST (Updated)

In 2008, psychiatrist Joel Gold and his neurophilosopher brother Ian Gold coined the term "The Truman Show delusion," known more casually as Truman Syndrome. This condition, which is not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, is a type of delusion where a person believes that they are constantly being watched by cameras or that their life is a staged reality show being watched by everyone. At a time when technology makes great advances daily and becomes an indelible part of our lives, it's not tough to see how such a condition would become a pressing concern. Pop culture and science fiction have played around with ideas like this for a long time, most notably author Philip K. Dick and his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. That book became the inspiration for the movie that the Gold brothers named the condition after, and there's a reason the film precedes the movie in this aspect.

1998's The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, stars Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, a regular guy with a normal good old-fashioned American life. He works in insurance, has a beautiful wife, and lives in the picturesque town of Seahaven Island, a place as wholesome as apple pie. He's not without his troubles: He desperately wants to travel and see the world but his smothering aquaphobia, brought on by the drowning of his father in a boating accident, renders him afraid to leave home. Nothing about his life is especially dramatic, but that doesn't stop hundreds of millions of people from tuning in every single day to The Truman Show, a 24-hour reality TV program that's captured the world's imagination since his birth. Seahaven Island is a massive soundstage, over 5,000 cameras capture every moment of his life, and all his family and friends are paid actors just doing a job.

The Truman Show premiered a year before the debut of a Dutch reality series called Big Brother. It wasn't the first reality series, but it was the one that pioneered a specific kind of voyeurism disguised as a social experiment. Contestants, or housemates, were invited to live together in close confinement away from the real world for potentially months on end. The winner, voted for by the public, receives a cash prize and the possibility of enduring fame. All they have to do is agree to 24/7 monitoring by a television network. Big Brother and its various international editions have been the subject of many legal, personal, and safety controversies, as well as bigger discussions about the wider ramifications of turning the basic act of living into a commodity. It paved the way for the future, but not even Big Brother at its most callous and manipulative can match the Americana horror of The Truman Show.

Unlike Big Brother’s housemates, Truman doesn’t know that he’s the star of the show. He is the only contestant, so to speak, with everyone around him hired to play specific roles for potentially the rest of their lives, which opens up a whole load of questions about when they get time to spend their salaries, go on the promotional trail, and be themselves. The near-omnipotent Christof, the show’s creator, looks down on the world he crafted from the sun (subtle theme-building there) and directs every action, from the falling of rain to the sweet platitudes Truman’s “friends” say to him during his hour of need. It’s gripping TV for the world outside of The Truman Show. It’s also, to put it bluntly, kind of terribly put together.

Christof insists that The Truman Show is real, but it’s clearly not derived from anything tangible in our reality. Truman’s world is hyperreal, more akin to Norman Rockwell paintings and Disneyland’s Main Street than the America of today. Everyone is dressed like they’ve fallen out of a commercial for cigarettes in the 1950s. Nobody swears or gets hurt or commits acts of violence (unless decreed by the director). Everything is lit like a television show in a way that draws attention to its artifice if you know what you’re looking for. The Truman Show is a business where everything is for sale thanks to massive amounts of hilariously awkward product placement. It’s a world where everyone, bar one man, knows that everything is pure falsehood, and that forces you to act in ways you don’t when everything is A-okay. Imagine being the ‘90s actress hired to be a man’s wife and the mother of his children until the day you die. Christof wants Truman to live in a utopia where he can live a perfect life, but he cannot do so when his leading man proves unwittingly rebellious to his script, and that is when the sheen comes off.

This utopia is a smothering one that demands adherence to “the good old days” and the Dorothy Gale adage that there’s no place like home. Truman’s natural urge to explore is practically beaten out of him by Christof and his team. His teacher mock him for wanting to see the world, his “father” is “killed off” in a traumatic boating accident that leaves him with severe phobias, and whenever he tries to leave Seahaven Island, obstacles both human and “natural” are thrown in his way with such frequency that they could only be the result of soap opera twists. The great underlying fear of any utopia is that it can become a dystopia in a heartbeat if the governing bodies should choose so, and The Truman Show is a world with one not-so-benevolent dictator, a man willing to drown his star if that’s what it takes to prevent him from leaving. Scratch just under the surface of Seahaven Island and you’ll find a festering rot.

Truman breaks free and leaves the show, stepping into the real world for the first time, and this is positioned as a happy ending by the movie, but the inevitable aftermath is one of horrifying inevitabilities for him. Here is a man who was literally adopted by a corporation to be a TV show’s star from birth without his knowledge or permission. He is completely unequipped for the real world and will have to deal with instant and inescapable fame, mental and emotional trauma, smothering trust issues, and intense paranoia for the rest of his life. He won’t get to be “normal” again, if he ever was to begin with. The utopia he inhabited was never a paradise, but it’s heaven compared to what he faces next. The utopia of The Truman Show itself also highlights the dystopian madness of the world outside the giant studio next to the Hollywood sign. Think of what this world must be like where it’s legal for a network to get the public to vote on which unborn child they want to watch on TV from cradle to grave. Consider what else must be on TV and showing in movies to keep up with this insidious worldwide thirst for the consumption of unwilling participation in entertainment. What happens after The Truman Show ends? Does the network adopt another child and start all over again? Maybe they decide to shake things up a bit with a girl instead of a boy, and lord knows what drama and leering spectacle they’d make of a young woman going through puberty.

As noted by Emily Chambers of Pajiba (disclaimer: I am also a writer for the site), Truman has basically no options for his future and may be left with the devastating choice of returning to Seahaven Island, if only because he literally can’t do anything else. He’s unprepared for a world of mundane evils and societal disruption and has no qualifications for even the most basic jobs. Truly, the only thing he knows is how to be himself, and that was ripped away from him. He was placed into a utopia of white picket fences and the good old days, and soon enough that nostalgic delusion will begin to seem all the more appealing to him. His paradise may be fake and malignant beyond repair but it is home, and people will keep watching.

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