The Truman Show has been a lockdown hit because modern media means we are all living it

"Good morning, and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!"

During the lockdown, The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s 1998 satire on the media, surveillance and the nature of stardom arrived on Netflix. It was perfect timing as most of the world retreated to bubbles, with most people presenting their own Truman Shows, curated versions of themselves via Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. 

Where the Truman Show once seemed like a futuristic satire, now it feels like a kind of archaic presence. In the world of Truman — played by Jim Carey — there is a vast metal hemisphere on the Hollywood hills, and within it, there is a studio within which Truman lives his entire life among actors, the only ‘real’ person there. 

Big Brother, the reality TV juggernaut, which saw real people placed within a bubble -- the house -- and subjected to the capricious whims of the titular overlord (the gender shifting Big Brother) premiered in 1999, the year after the Truman Show was released. In the pre-Truman Show world, voyeurism had yet to become the dominant mode of ‘reality TV’.

Of course, MTV’s The Real World has turned ‘normal’ people into characters since 1992 but unlike Big Brother, it was far more curated and less ‘raw’ — a mechanism for people who wanted to be stars to become them, simply by being themselves.  

Erik Sofge, writing in Popular Mechanics in 2008, argued that The Truman Show reflected the falseness of the new generation of reality TV that was to come: “Truman simply live, and the show’s popularity is its straightforward voyeurism. And, like Big Brother, Survivor, and every other reality show on the air, none of this environment is actually real. 

I think the media itself — particularly in the US and UK — is a series of Truman Shows. Outfits like Fox News exist in a state of constant hyper-reality, where the hosts are always angry, and always on. The line between Tucker Carlson — a human being who goes out into the world to eat, shit, and fuck — and Tucker Carlson — the tanned racism bot who spews vitriol on-demand — barely exists any more. The distinction between character and citizen has been erased. John Humphrys, over 32 years on Radio 4’s Today programme, became the anger goblin he had started out playing.

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In some respects, Peter Weir tried to present the ending of The Truman Show —Truman saying his catchphrase then stepping out of the exit — as hopeful. But there is no escape from a Truman Show. Once you let yourself enter the media and become, for example, a columnist, you are trapped in the theatre of it. Even trying to quit a particular job becomes theatre — look at the dramatic resignation of Bari Weiss from the New York Times this week — and a change in your outlook or perspective on something is recast as a heel turn/face turn

Ronald Bishop, writing in the Journal of Communication Enquiry, suggested that The Truman Show was about the power of the media, rather than about the way that power can be broken. The movie shows Truman inspiring people around the world, and even his escape ends up as an inspirational occurrence. Bishop says: “In the end, the power of the media is affirmed rather than challenged. In the spirit of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, these films and television programs co-opt our enchantment (and disenchantment) with the media and sell it back to us.” 

When Truman leaves the show, the film ends. We have not got a sequel. We have not been given a sense of what Truman does when he leaves. Truman is globally famous. He can no more ‘leave’ The Truman Show than Paul McCartney could leave The Beatles; the show will follow Truman around forever. He leaves The Truman Show only to find himself stepping into a new show, a less controlled show, a show — fame — that he may find far more terrifying than life in the bubble. 

On a less grand level, anyone who gets some exposure in the media enters into a Truman-style pact. Whether you’re a newspaper columnist or a Love Island contestant, if you become known to the public, the thing that made you famous is branded upon you — we don’t call these things ‘brands’ for nothing — and reshaping how you are seen is very hard. And, on an even more individual level, you are the star of a Truman Show: Presenting a character on social media if you engage, and creating the absence of character if you don’t. 

If the Truman Show were remade today, it wouldn’t be a comedy or a futuristic imagining, it would be a horrible, grinding satire of right now.

And we would all be the stars of it.