The Truman Show isn't saying anything that media critics haven't been complaining about for years. It's just saying it in a different, weirder key. TV has long been an all-purpose target for just about everything that's wrong with society. A movie that portrays TV as all-narcotizing and all-corrupt -- that points out our lives have become indistinguishable from the shows we watch -- is a tonic for people looking for the easy way out. Even before its official release, the film has occasioned a lot of self-righteous posturing. After all, by pointing out the horrors of the tube, you are also implying that you are not fully seduced by them.

The film's take on television is rife with condescension. It's not so much holier-than-thou as holier-than-them. And yet ironically, in order to be a hit, The Truman Show needs to connect with the very people to whom it condescends -- for example, the planned-community, Middle American folks who look to a place such as Seahaven for refuge. In general, the audiences for Truman, even when they are cheering him on, are shown to be a pretty lumpy lot. They are consumers -- sponges -- and they're fickle. When the Truman show finally goes off the air, they just want to know what else is on. Implicit in all this is a class bias that the filmmakers barely acknowledge. Usually when people talk about the ill effects of TV, what they often are really saying is that the mass audience is too stunted to ward off its whammies. Not so with us educated types. We know about stuff like postmodernism. We don't watch the Jerry Springer Show and the Home Shopping Network; we watch Masterpiece Theatre. We only watch the news for the news, not for the sensationalism. We can spot the ways in which television manipulates us.

But the real black comedy of media manipulation is that the marketeers and programmers use the purportedly educated audience's cynicism about the process as part of the package. They build in our skepticism, so it's possible that such an audience is even more likely to be hoodwinked by TV's truth-and-reality games than the great unwashed. The Truman Show would have been a smarter and more accurate commentary if it weren't so busy trying to flatter us about how smart we are. Really, we're not all that smart. Neither are the filmmakers. Their sappy version of a better life for Truman is right out of an old Frank Capra movie, and isn't on a much higher aesthetic plane than what they're attacking.

Hollywood movies don't often dabble in "ideas." So when one that does comes along, such as The Truman Show, it gets the state-of-the-union treatment. And yet I remember a movie from years back, Albert Brooks's 1979 Real Life, that remarked upon just about everything The Truman Show does, and was a lot fizzier. Brooks played a pushy TV director who films a yearlong documentary about a "real" family, and ends up driving them and himself and everybody else crazy. The movie got into the zonked-out love-hate relationship we have with television -- and the absurdity of making the "real" real.

Unlike Real Life, The Truman Show tries to educate us. Education is the essence of that dead-weight genre, "the message movie," and despite the new-style flash of The Truman Show, that's exactly the genre into which it fits. The movie touches a nerve with people who feel guilty -- but perhaps not too guilty -- about soaking up tube time without actually improving themselves.

It touches another nerve as well. The omnipresence of the media has confirmed for many people a paranoid view of life. How can we keep track of all the nefarious conglomerate interconnections any more? The Truman Show, financed by one of the world's largest corporate conglomerates, plays into a populist vogue that theorizes we're all victims. Truman is our martyr. The film is a nightmare but an oddly comforting one. It absolves us of any responsibility to tune out the buzz or turn off the tube. Probably most of us leaving The Truman Show will nod approvingly at its dire warnings, then go right home and switch on our favorite sitcom or tabloid talk show. And our souls will not perish in the process.

The Truman Show.
Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Andrew Niccol. Starring Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, and Natascha McElhone.

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