The Timeless Prophecy of the Truman Show Remains a Warning in a World of Reality TV

Artwork by Megan Smith

Reality TV and modern culture go hand in hand. The birth of this new television format can be accredited to the early 2000’s and has brought with it cultural giants such as Big Brother, The X-Factor, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, The Real Housewives, and Love Island. The respective cult-like followings that ensued each show has allowed for a new wave of celebrity to emerge and change the meaning of the word altogether. So, what was it about this genre that had us all so fascinated? The difference with this format was that these people were representative of ourselves - the mere public. Just like Truman Burbank in Peter Weir’s memorable 1998 film ‘The Truman Show’, it was the desire to watch other people in a state of exposed realness that beckoned in our new-found cultural obsession. The desire to watch other people live on our screens, unedited and unscripted, has cultivated a new generation of reality TV stars. Mirroring the reasoning for our real-life obsession with voyeuristic viewing, Truman’s TV producer, Christof, says simply, "You were real. That's what made you so good to watch."

In 1998, The Truman Show was an ironic farcical tale, preposterous and dystopian. Now, The Truman Show is an early forerunner to the genre of reality TV. Actress Laura Linney who plays Truman’s love interest, Meryl Burbank, reminisces in an interview on how ‘we would laugh about how unrealistic some of it seemed. We couldn’t quite believe that someone would want to tape themselves, so that people could tune in and watch what was considered at the time to be mundane and see that as entertainment.” However, the film serves as a prescient warning for the inevitable consequences of pairing the public and private together. Peter Weir’s prophetic fable centres on Truman (Jim Carrey), —an optimistic man who cheerfully calls out ‘In case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.’ The film tracks his gradual realisation that his entire life is an intricately composed ruse,as his best friends and family members, including his parents, are actually actors. Everyone around him has another identity and they are all in on this great deception that exploits Truman's humanity for entertainment. His every move is captured by 5,000 hidden cameras and broadcast to the world 24 hours a day for them to see him bathing, sleeping, working, and eating. The film was able to forecast the reality-TV craze, and perfectly represents the way humans take joy from living life vicariously through another human being. The ability to empathise with someone so similar to us is maybe why the addiction to reality TV allows the mundane activities of others to become completely thrilling. The Truman show perhaps forebodes the growth of reality TV, and with over 750 reality TV series on our screens, it seems we may have reached a point of no return, regardless of the consequences.

The thirst to watch normal people in the mundane activities of sleeping, eating, and interacting with others caused 4.4 million viewers to tune into the first series of Big Brother. Unfiltered, raw, and open: this Orwellian-inspired show became a blueprint for subsequent reality TV programmes. This new phenomenon contrasted greatly with the scripted, often unrealistic stories that were presented previously and instead provided a fresh new approach that ultimately redefined the entertainment genre.

The draw of normal people becoming celebrities could only be exceeded by celebrities becoming normal people. By allowing us, the viewing public, to see celebrities presented without the aid of a PR team, professionally applied makeup and managers, we realised that they too were fallible just like the rest of us. Perhaps this stark contrast between the persona played out in the public eye posed alongside the reality of how celebrities perform when they are in a sphere that feels private (despite being nothing of the sort) is what made the Celebrity edition of Big Brother all the more addictive. Big Brother perfectly represents UK reality TV culture during its zenith. Quotes such as Nikki Grahame's "Who IS she?", Tiffany Pollard's iconic ‘David’s dead’ mishap and of course Gemma Collins’ exclamation of ‘I’m claustrophobic Darren!’ have been instrumental in the creation of ‘Love of Huns’ culture,which celebrates the UK reality TV ‘Hun’ (and if you don’t know, follow them on instagram, you’ve been missing out). I wonder if Truman himself had been a contestant in the Big Brother franchise would we have royally titled him as a ‘reality TV hun.’

Yet, while Big Brother serves as an undeniable guilty pleasure for all of us and an icon of 2000’s culture, it also represents something far more sinister. The availability of cameras to document movements from a group of people over the space of a month brings with it a plethora of problems for both the cast and audience. Throughout the neartwo decades that the show was on air, changing sociatal views towards gender, sex and race meant that within a turbulent and ever-changing world the comments and actions of contestants had to be closely monitored before being aired. Ultimately, due to the growth in social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, the readiness and ease at which the audience were able to troll a contestant caused the show directors to review the ethics of the programme. Infamously, Big Brother was brought to an end in 2018 after celebrity star Roxanne Pallett falsely accused co-star Ryan Thomas of punching her. The subsequent consequences of this claim were left to be played out on TV, as they both remained on the show, allowing the fallout to be watched by two million viewers throughout the country. Obviously, Pallett faced immense backlash from this with tabloids deeming her the ‘most hated woman in Britain.’ As viewers, watching the scenario being played out in front of our eyes felt uncomfortable. In 2018 it was clear that reality TV had gone too far, as the ability to watch someone else’s demise and misery draws the line at entertainment and becomes exploitation. What started out as a light-hearted entertainment programme became too much of a psychological experiment and in my opinion, this was when we, as a society, had started to realise that reality TV had gone too far. With growing awareness of mental health and with it, an ability to comprehend the long term effects of being publically scrutinised by millions of people, we are now in a better place to understand what precautions need to be put in place to ensure that reality TV is produced ethically. However, when we start to filter, edit, and change the reality of what we are viewing, surely it is not reality TV anymore? Rather, this perceived reality is becoming all the more scripted while still positioning itself as raw and truthful viewing. To find the balance between reality and fiction is almost impossible, and reminds us that rarely are these categories zero-sum. Often, in the media we consume, fiction is laced with reality and reality is laced with fiction.

Over these past two decades, we have witnessed a gradual remission in the authenticity of reality TV. This is perhaps in response to the negative claims and uncomfortable viewing scenes where cast members have been presented in an unfavourable light that evidently results in endless trolling and harassment from the audience. Reality TV stars face relentless judgment and critique for portraying unfiltered aspects of their lives, just as Truman would have inevitably had aggressive trolls on Twitter if the show had been aired as a reality TV show today. Fan favourites such as the infamous dating show ‘Love Island’ is known for producing micro-celebrities from ‘normal’ people. However, when these contestants leave the show, they are often thrown into the fast-paced regime of public appearances, sponsorship deals and continually updating their social media feeds to uphold an image of perfection. For those who leave the show and find out they have been portrayed as the show’s villain or heartbreaker, the reintegration into a normal (digital) life can be even harder. We have to question whether reality TV can ever be worth it: is our entertainment worth the cost of the damaging effects on the contestant’s mental health? Two Love Island contestants have tragically commited suicide following their time in the villa.

Another prophetic warning in The Truman Show is scenes of overt product placement. These scenes are played as obvious and humorous while simultaneously reflecting a dystopian world that is eerily similar to the one we occupy. The film predicted the scope of modern product placement, highlighting the intense relationship we have formed with the commercialisation of the media. With no way to break for commercials, since the show is live 24/7, product placement is the obvious choice for advertising in The Truman Show. Grabbing any opportunity to slip in a plug for gardening shears or vegetable peelers, the actors that play Truman's family and friends are constantly turning intently towards the camera to sell us these products. The humorous and slightly concerning hard sell is picked up by Truman when he shouts "What the hell are you talking about? Who are you talking to?" after his pretend wife Meryl attempts to shamelessly plug hot chocolate whilst in the middle of an argument between the two. This blatant product placement must have seemed unimaginable in the 1990’s and even comical throughout the first decade of the 2000’s, yet now product placement is everywhere we look.h Just look at the prevalence and effectiveness of ‘influencers’ as sellers of products through social media. It is becoming increasingly difficult to separate ourselves from the bombardment of hard sells that are wrapped in aesthetic Instagram posts from celebrities and influencers – like Truman, we are unaware that we are the victims of product placement. Meryl’s hard sell of the product resembles the slightly aggressive tone that influencers use on Instagram today, “Why don’t you let me fix you some of this new Mococoa drink? All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua. No artificial sweeteners.” The advertisements that have taken Instagram from a fun photo-sharing app to an intensely commercialised platform for business resembles the ironic business promotions featured in The Truman Show.

With endless Instagram highlights, reels, Snapchat stories and TikTok, it feels as if the pressure to document your life is relentless. All our achievements, reunions, family gatherings, and holidays are available at the click of an icon for the world to view. The world seems to contain billions of Trumans, each with our lives being worth only the previous number of interactions on a post. The things that Truman was desperate to escape from is everything we now seem to crave. The constant attention, the world revolving around us, and the availability to document every important life milestone is what social media has offered us. The Truman show perfectly sets us up to question new media and the consequent invasion of our privacy. It also questions the existential predicament of whether to live for yourself or an audience—be it television or social media. It seems as if we now choose to live for an audience rather than ourselves, everything on social media is as fake as the idyllic Seahaven that has its weather controlled by a director. Social media has become our very own Seahaven, with our projected pictures of filtered perfection highlighting only the positive parts of our life. While it is presented as ‘reality’ we know that it is far from the truth. The downfall of reality TV is perhaps also echoed in the obsession of curating a perfectly controlled image that we want others to see. The idea of pure reality is too hard to expose anymore, the control we are enabled to exert over our reality is why the appeal of social media is so great. As Truman’s best friend, Marlon on the set of the Truman show puts it, ‘It’s all true. It’s all real. Nothing here is fake. Nothing you see on this show is fake. It’s merely controlled.”

The Truman Show serves not only as a warning, but also as a realisation for viewers. That within any form of reality TV, unless we are able to treat those who have been subjected to the eye of millions of viewers with more compassion, then unfortunately it has a limited place in today’s society. The control exerted by directors over the programme is increasing, whether for the right or wrong reasons. We are all living in our own version of Seahaven and serve as our own Truman in our individual narrative. As time passes, the Truman Show won't just be a fictional film, but increasingly reflective of our society. With social media sometimes feeling as if it has taken a piece of our soul and is able to read our minds, it is useful to reiterate the words that Truman replies to Christof at the end of the film;

“Christof : I know you better than you know yourself.”

“Truman : You never had a camera in my head!”

Article by Emma Randall