The Truman Show

The Truman Show is worth a watch for its premise alone. Imagine your whole world is actually a carefully constructed artificial reality all revolving around you, and that this “reality” is broadcast to millions of viewers. It is hard to fathom, but the more that I think about it, this fascinating premise is not really so far removed from the things we see (or at least the implicit principles) in our culture.

Truman, played by Jim Carrey (who is always brimming with optimism and energy), has been raised from birth as the star of a massive scale reality show. Yet unlike the Kardashians of the world, Truman is unaware that his life is a source of entertainment for scores of ordinary people. In his mind, he is one of these ordinary people himself; that is, until a peculiar series of events leads him to doubt the truth of everything he has ever known and the authenticity of all of his personal relationships.

I still find myself thinking through all the effort and caution that would have to go into such a huge scheme. Truman has been cared for and kept safe; he is happy and he has all the elements constituting a good and “normal” life: he has a loving and beautiful wife, family and friends, a successful career and a nice home. But all of these things- all of these separate parts that make up life- are carefully orchestrated and planned, and so they are devoid of authentic love. No wonder Truman seems to experience a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction, despite the fact that everything seems to be going well for him.

Carrey’s likeability is undeniable in the titular role. His greatest strength, I think, is in playing a loveable goof, and in this movie, he is easy to love with his big heart and abundant enthusiasm, and is also hilariously goofy. But the character of Truman (both in the movie and in the reality show in the movie) is more than just a vehicle for comedy. This is a movie that, like Truman, has a lot of heart, and I think the larger issues it raises are of key importance.

First of all, we have the issue of visibility. The movie is definitely making fun of and responding to the emerging trend of reality television (the movie premiered in 1998). Almost twenty years later, reality shows are increasingly prominent, and reality stars (like the aforementioned Kardashians, who always seem to spring first to mind in such discussions) have created a new genre of celebrities: people famous for, well, being famous.

Like I said above, Truman seeks neither fame nor fortune (he is far more interested in adventure and fulfillment), yet when he realizes something is amiss, he becomes increasingly paranoid. I don’t think many of us (any of us?) are developing a conspiracy theory that we are secret reality stars, but don’t we all have, to a certain extent, the sense of being watched? Our world is more and more one of visibility: there is an emphasis on seeing and being seen, on giving an object or experience value by documenting it and sharing this visible documentation with other people.

But this has consequences, both for our perception of value and for our own personal experience of life. Although we may know we are not being watched, we have internalized the sense of being watched and that consciousness of external judgement. With the omnipresence of mobile devices and social media, we can stay “connected” and maintain this sense of being watched by and attached to our social world, even when we are in intimate or private places, places that should be safe and secure. For example, right before we go to bed, even if we are alone and preparing for sleep, we can still scroll through our phone: the outer world infiltrates the inner.

The other issue that I think the movie raises in an interesting (and more hopeful) way is the importance of uncertainty in life, and of the experiences of failure and pain. The creator of the reality show in which Truman stars thinks that he is helping Truman by keeping him safe. Since Truman’s life is externally controlled, he is exempt from the ordinary negative occurrences of life; he does not have to fear for the future or for his own well-being.

But is this all that fulfillment consists of? Are falsely positive emotions and pleasures, and the avoidance of negative emotions and pain enough? The Truman Show (the movie, not the fictional reality show) would answer ‘no,’ and I would as well. Because although we fear failure and we fear suffering, these very experiences give meaning to life and most importantly, they allow us to experience love and joy in a truly real way.