Every year brings a new reality TV show, more niche and zany than the rest: Drag queens vying for the title of America’s next drag superstar, an Italian-American family baking cakes for a Marie Antoinette-themed party, teenagers learning to face the realities of premature parenthood. Reality TV shows have been around for a while, and it seems that their constant reinvention has solidified their place in the channel guide.
As American life evolved into the 21st century, so did reality TV. What started in the 50s as a passing interest in the actions of everyday people presented with unusual scenarios—like the hidden-camera prank show, Candid Camera, which sprouted the phrase “Smile, you’re on camera!”—turned into a morbid fascination with the inner lives of American dignitaries like Kim Kardashian and Guy Fieri in the 2000s. The satirical sci-fi film, The Truman Show, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, anticipated the American obsession with reality TV. A retroactive examination of the movie will show how our cravings for on-screen reality reflect our inner existential anxieties.
The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, lampoons modern American life. Protagonist Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, lives in a quaint white-picket-fence home and works a vanilla desk job at an insurance company. He has a blonde wife, a beige sedan, a daily routine, and a fear of water—his kryptonite—which makes it hard to escape his home on Seahaven Island, only accessible by boat. Nonetheless, he fantasizes about moving from his island to another one, the island of Fiji—an irony Truman fails to recognize, though perhaps this dream is meant to be one of those all-too-common suburban dreams that never turns into anything.
The catch is that Seahaven is actually located in a giant arcological dome in Hollywood, equipped with thousands of cameras used to record and broadcast every dull detail of Truman’s life, from the moment he wakes and makes faces in the mirror to the moment he falls asleep in his basement. All of Truman’s neighbors and coworkers are actors, playing out a script written by the show’s director, an arty, overbearing, barrette-wearing hotshot named Christof, who has presumably garnered so much attention for his artistic direction that using a surname is simply superfluous. Millions of people from around the world tune in to watch Christof’s perfectly crafted ordinary individual Truman, a True-man.
Since The Truman Show is all action all the time, the show doesn’t take any ad-breaks. Instead, ads are integrated into the stream of events in the show. This product placement is subtle at first and shows how we’ve become desensitized to marketing in the consumer era—every object, idea, and image has become attached to an ad and a slogan. Even when a dejected Truman sternly confronts his wife Meryl about her desire for (and his disinterest in) children, she immediately breaks into an infomercial refrain: “Why don’t you let me fix you some of this Mococoa drink? All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua. No artificial sweeteners.” Meryl tries to use a product to solve Truman’s unhappiness. While jarring at first, a quick and easy commercial immediately dissipates the gridlocked tension between Truman and his wife. A commercial break is a return to something familiar, instantly putting the restless viewer at ease.
Why anyone would want to tune in to watch the very ordinary life of Truman Burbank is a mystery on its own. When reality TV shows like Survivor and Big Brother exploded in the late 90s, people began to organize their own lives around the lives of people appearing each week on television. Viewership turned into fanaticism, and people became addicted to the real-life stories of people on reality TV. The Truman Show mocks this addiction by showing crowds of people intrigued by Truman’s banal life. To many people, scripted television shows planned with recited lines cannot compete with the unpredictability of reality TV. “We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. …There’s nothing fake about Truman,” explains Christof. Throughout the movie, viewers (bartenders, police officers, etc.) become so absorbed in The Truman Show that they are more interested in watching Truman’s life than living their own. Though people have always needed relatable stories, there is something creepy and voyeuristic about the way the lust for authenticity is presented in The Truman Show.
Part of the excitement of reality TV seems oddly existential in nature: reality TV depicts the radicality of human freedom, the raw individual in the face of untamed nature. Martin Heidegger describes this concept as “thrownness” (geworfenheit in German)—the idea that existence is a state of being thrown into the present with all its nagging demands, a sort of alienation that the human being is forced to struggle against. Reality TV “throws” people into situations to see how they decide to act. In this sense, reality TV is cynical and borderline animalistic, like a colosseum or a dog fight. When we watch reality TV, we are keenly aware of the colosseum that the individual is entering, and that the individual’s disorientation upon entering foreign terrain parallels our own; that the foreign conditions of present life are not determined by us, but (in Truman’s case) by Christof; and that existence is a fight for survival in the face of those conditions. There’s something distinctly Nietzschean about the God-like figure of Christof (or off-Christ) attempting to limit Truman’s freedom. Nietzsche thought the free spirit was independent of religious institutions like Christianity, which only serve to restrict human will, as Christof does Truman’s.
So the viewers of The Truman Show sit biting their nails, wondering what Truman might do next. Though Christof presents Truman with scripted situations, Truman still has the free will to select whatever choices are before him. Jean-Paul Sartre believed that human beings define the nature of their existence by exhibiting freedom. Part of the thrill of reality TV is that it actualizes human freedom in obvious and direct ways. At the end of the movie, Truman’s freedom is most salient when he finally figures out that he’s on TV, conquers his fear of water by setting sail in a boat, and escapes Seahaven Island. Audiences everywhere are exhilarated that Truman has defeated the restrictions of his radical freedom. The show demonstrates that the will of the individual surpasses the bounds set by a Creator or higher power.
The existentialists believed that our anxiety stems from our absolute freedom—and in some ways, the modern era has presented us with greater reason for anxiety than ever before: the freedom to consume whatever products and media we choose. The options are overwhelming and endless, so it makes sense then that viewers look to reality TV as a guide to navigate this freedom. Say Yes to the Dress teaches viewers what to look for when buying a wedding dress, and Pawn Stars depicts the evaluation and purchase of various antiques. And while the secondhand experience of freedom lowers the stakes (and the anxiety), the decisions feel real enough that the viewer can still experience the excitement of exercised freedom.
The closing scene of The Truman Show, when Truman finds the set’s exit door, is a near copy of Sartre’s 1944 existentialist play No Exit, where Joseph Garcin unlocks the door that allows him to escape from Hell. Both characters pause to consider whether they really want to open their respective doors. The decision feels like life or death: neither of them has any idea of what lies outside. Though Garcin ultimately chooses the devil he knows, The Truman Show rewrites No Exit’s conclusion in the most satisfying way possible: Truman marches out the door, transcending the oppressive set of LED lights and film cameras in search of truth and freedom. Watching this, we are happy for Truman, and we have more hope for ourselves. Perhaps, in the half-century that has passed since No Exit, we have found a documented solution to our own anxiety: reality TV.