The Truman Show: Is Your Life in Prime Time

By Rick Segreda

The Truman Show has been lauded with some of the most extreme critical encomiums since such arthouse landmarks like Citizen Kane, Open City, La Strada, and The Seventh Seal. Mr. Showbiz's movie critic calls it "the best American film in the past five years." What was 1993's masterpiece, I wonder? And USA Today states that it might be "the film of ...all time." Is it that good? No, it isn't, but it is a good film, well worth seeing and talking about, but seriously flawed with a fanciful but wildly improbable premise.

A science fiction fantasy, the chronological setting of the film is some vaguely allegorical near-future, while the geographical setting is a massive, dome-enclosed, Hollywood studio set masquerading as an actual city, populated by actors pretending to be citizens, all for the purposes of deceiving one Truman Burbank, whose every movement and word has been secretly broadcast to the whole world since even before his birth.

The force behind the "The Truman Show" within The Truman Show is an eccentric zillionaire allegorically named Chistoff, who monitors and directs every bit of detail and dialogue in his artificial creation that he calls Seahaven. Christoff has developed Seahaven and the events in Truman's life such that Truman will never leave Seahaven, thus allow his "program" to continue till Truman's old age, with Truman's children providing material for the next generation of viewers.

The drama in the film come about when Truman begins to realize the "truth" about his "world" and tries to escape.

In terms of it's premise and plot, even as science fiction, The Truman Show has some serious credibility problems. For example, Christoff "kills" Truman's father during a storm at sea, in order that Truman would be so traumatized by the experience that he will be frightened to leave the water bound Seahaven. Later on, when Truman boldly confronts this trauma and takes off in a sailboat to what he thinks is the Pacific Ocean and Fiji, Christoff attempts to drown Truman with another, more severe storm.

Granted that Christoff is a zillionaire in the manner of Bill Gates or Ted Turner, that doesn't sufficiently explain how he can legally get away with both child abuse-the fake death of Truman's father-and murder-his attempted drowning of Truman. Wouldn't leading a child to believe that his father has died and creating an unnatural fear of water cause such an outrage among Truman's television fans, the ones that Christoff depends upon for financial support to buy "Truman"-advertised products, that Christoff's program be stopped immediately? How could such mental and emotional abuse be supported by Truman's millions of viewers? It is not enough to assume that because Christoff is superwealthy that he is above the law and ethics, even wealth does buy the best lawyers in real life.

Then there is the part about Truman and his wife, and their failure to produce a child, which is frustrating Christoff's designs for the program. Truman is clearly not happy with his fake wife, but the script is vague on the important plot point as to why no pregnancy has occurred. Is it because they have not had sex-if so, why not? And since it is made clear that the actress hired to impersonate a wife for Truman is "acting," if they are having sex then this renders her a prostitute, but the logical implications of this, like the one about Truman's childhood traumas, are not developed.

And ultimately, it is my own gut belief that if any man discovered that his whole life was the wild premise of "The Truman Show," with even his own mother a stranger who was faking it at being a mother, and with even the sun and the moon turning out to be artificial props, his only logical reaction would be to go completely insane, or at least have a nervous breakdown.

So not having much faith in the story, or how it developed, what is effective about The Truman Show is that it works as an allegory about the artificiality of values and life itself in our world. Truman's wife periodically pitches products, such as kitchen appliances and low-fat cocoa, to hidden cameras under the guise of "conversation," while Seahaven comes across as grotesquely sterile, well-ordered, homogenized, pasteurized, and bland. It's fake citizens are deliberately uncurious about seemingly anything, going on with their prescripted lives with an ominously self-satisfied smugness about their own whitewashed community. Truman's own interest in travel and exploration is constantly discouraged. And except for the staged trauma of the death of Truman's father, life for Truman is disturbingly painless. Part of Truman's awakening comes about when he realizes that he can walk through busy traffic without causing any accidents or suffer injury.

Thus what Truman longs to escape is not merely his "fake" world, but it's "fake" values, devoid of the risks, pain, and grief that is the flip side of genuine joy. Some critics have claimed that film is an allegory the loss of privacy in the brave new world of multi-media, but this interpretation is undermined by the rousing conclusion of the film, whereby Truman's worldwide viewers cheer on his attempted escape from Seahaven, and find in him a personal role model for their own lives. Thus the negative implications of Too Much Television , Too Many Camcorders, and No Privacy are not fully explored except as an implied condemnation of the false, materialistic values that television promotes.

Indeed, this what may be the ultimate dark joke in The Truman Show for the baby boomer generation raised more by television than by parents; it is a logical extension of being "raised" by "actors" while one's own life becomes increasingly artificial, false, and filled with commercial interruptions.


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