How real is ‘The Truman Show’? Experts explain what the Jim Carrey film got right and wrong about reality TV

25 years ago, The Truman Show predicted our current reality TV era. (Illustration by Aisha Yousaf for Yahoo / Photo: Everett Collection)

25 years ago, The Truman Show predicted our current reality TV era. (Illustration by Aisha Yousaf for Yahoo / Photo: Everett Collection)

Before Big Brother, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives, the first name in unscripted entertainment was… Truman Burbank. Seahaven Island’s favorite son was also the world’s best-known celebrity courtesy of The Truman Show — the 24/7 reality series that he’d unwittingly headlined for 30 years. And his fame transcended the small screen: on June 5, 1998, moviegoers flocked to see what ultimately became The Truman Show‘s series finale, a feature-length “episode” where Truman finally discovered the unreality in his reality and exited the TV frame for good with a final, “Good afternoon, good evening and good night.”

The Truman Show wasn’t real, of course, but 25 years later, we’re still tuning in to see what that unlikely 1998 blockbuster hath wrought. Written by Andrew Niccol, directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey, the PG-rated fable banked almost $265 million at the global box office, making it the tenth highest grossing film of that year. And that success wasn’t guaranteed: by most behind-the-scenes accounts, the film took some time to find its final shape and Carrey’s last attempt to break out of broad comedy, 1996’s The Cable Guy, had bombed badly.

In the case of The Truman Show, though, the premise proved an even bigger attraction than the star. At the time, a significance portion of moviegoers flocking to the movie would have been exposed to unscripted television via pioneering shows like PBS’s An American Family, Fox’s Cops and MTV’s The Real World, where cameras documented ordinary people living, working and fighting with each other.

But the film also ended up predicting the genre’s next incarnation as a celebrity-generating engine where new stars are created — and old stars resurrected — sometimes with the aid of producer-crafted storylines that are just unscripted enough to seem real. Television isn’t the only avenue for aspiring Truman Burbanks either: YouTube, Twitch and TikTok have their own celebrities that take their daily antics directly to fans. Although unlike Truman, almost all of these contemporary reality stars are well-aware that they’re being watched and welcome the attention.

Prescient as it is, there’s no way that The Truman Show could premiere on Bravo or VH1 in our own reality. When Yahoo Entertainment spoke with four unscripted television experts about the legacy of the movie, they all agreed that the expense, the logistics and the ethics surrounding the show would make it a near-instant no-go. Still, they’re also well aware of how the ghost of Truman Burbank still haunts reality TV a quarter century later. Here’s how each of them feels about The Truman Show now, and what they think happened to Truman after he canceled his own series.

The Producer

If Truman Burbank had had a kid during the run of The Truman Show, his name might be Ronald Gladden. When the 30-year-old solar contractor responded to a Craigslist ad seeking participants for a documentary about jury duty, he had no idea he’d be the star of an Amazon Freevee reality series called… Jury Duty. And the makers of the breakout streaming series made sure to spotlight the connection ahead of the show’s premiere in April.

“Freevee put our trailer up on Twitter and it did pretty well,” Jury Duty executive producer Todd Schulman says. “But then one of our writers, Kerry O’Neill rewtweeted it with the phrase: ‘We Truman Showed a man’ and that’s when it exploded.”

And Jury Duty really does give Ronald the full Truman Show treatment, complete with hidden cameras and crew members, actors playing “real” people — or, in the case of James Marsden, actors playing themselves — and sets that stood in for actual locations. “We also had a control room with all these monitors that was like Christof’s control room,” Schulman says, referring to The Truman Show‘s God-like creator, played by Ed Harris. “I couldn’t be on set most days, so I was watching a live feed in my office and definitely felt some parallels with Christof there.”

For the record, Schulman insists that The Truman Show wasn’t the direct inspiration for Jury Duty. Instead, he and creators Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky referred to examples like 2003’s The Joe Schmo Show and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno and Borat sequel when they first discussed making their series a reality.

“I worked with Sacha for a long time before Jury Duty, and I think this entire genre — if we’re able to call it that — is built upon Christof’s line in The Truman Show: ‘We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.’ Obviously, the movie is the most extreme example, but I think that line is really important in terms of what came after.”

Ronald Gladden and James Marsden in Jury Duty. (Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Freevee.)

Ronald Gladden and James Marsden in Jury Duty. (Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Freevee.)

As producers, both Christof and Schulman had to go to great lengths to maintain the version of reality presented to their respective stars. Just as falling studio lights and crossed radio frequencies breach Truman’s existence, there are multiple moments throughout Jury Duty where Ronald nearly sees through the illusion that’s being created for him.

“It was immensely stressful,” Schulman says of those accidental breaks in Ronald’s reality. “We were constantly trying to balance how far we could push things without risking the entire enterprise. Because if it doesn’t work, you literally don’t have a TV show. It takes a real leap of faith to put the amount of resources behind a series like this.”

“For us, three weeks was a massive undertaking,” Schulman continues. “So my hat is off to Christof for doing that for 30 years. Also, he should go to jail — but my hat is off to him!”

Ed Harris (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Ed Harris as Christof, the God-like creator of The Truman Show. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Twenty-five years later, Christof’s amoral treatment of his star is the thing that sticks in Schulman’s craw, and stands diametrically opposed to how he and the Jury Duty team saw Ronald.

“The whole ‘corporation adopting a baby’ thing is a bit much for me,” he says, referencing how Truman ended up as the star of his show in the first place. “Ronald also knew he was being filmed for our show, whereas Truman has no idea there are cameras filming him. Everyone wanted to make sure the show never felt like an exploitation of Ronald, but a celebration of Ronald. This whole genre is morally fraught, and you have to do it in the right way because it’s very easy to be cruel to people. “

“So morally, I don’t think The Truman Show should exist,” Schulman adds. “But if it did exist, people would absolutely watch it.”

What’s next for Truman Burbank?

“Every time I’ve watched the movie, I always think about Truman experiencing the rude awakening that Christof warns him about. I’m sure it’s a challenging adjustment for him to be put into the real world, such as it is. But I also imagine that he didn’t regret the decision in any way.”

The Casting Director

The year before The Truman Show hit theaters, Jason Cornwell had his own brush with reality TV fame. In 1997, the then-poet joined the cast of The Real World: Boston and learned firsthand what it was like to stop being polite… and start getting real.

“I remember being on the train in Boston, and there’s a camera guy three feet away filming me,” Cornwell says when asked about the experience of having his life documented for a television audience. “And then there’s a sound guy behind him, and a director behind him. So there are three people watching me, and the entire train is trying to figure out who I am! They’re all staring at me, and I have to act normal. It was one thing when I was with my castmates and we were talking to each other and ignoring the cameras together. It became really hard when you were by yourself and being filmed while trying to go about your life.”

Jason Cornwell (far left with axe) was one of the stars of The Real World: Boston in 1997. (Photo: MTV/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Jason Cornwell (left, in fireman’s hat) was one of the stars of The Real World: Boston in 1997. (Photo: MTV/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Of course, Cornwell knows that his situation wasn’t directly analogous to what Truman Burbank experienced. “On The Truman Show, all of the other people were actors, so they would all stare at him while trying to pretend not to. But on The Real World, everyone just openly stares at you, especially in a city like Boston! It got a little complicated, which is why a lot of people on the show just end up staying in the house the whole time.”

Flash-forward a quarter century and Cornwell is now behind the camera as one of the partners of Cornwell Casting — a casting agency that specializes in reality programming. Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer, Millionaire Matchmaker and Ex On the Beach are just some of the shows he’s cast, although he says that none of them would be the ideal fit for Truman’s specific skill set. “He’s not a farmer, so that doesn’t help us at all,” Cornwell jokes. “He’d be great on a game show or on something like The Amazing Race. I’d put that dude on The Amazing Race in a hot second.”

While he may not be Millionaire Matchmaker material, Cornwell does think that Truman has what it takes to be a reality star beyond the city-sized dome where The Truman Show films. “The thing about Truman is that he can’t help but be himself, right? And the prerequisite that we are looking for at Cornwell Casting is finding people can’t help but be themselves no matter what. When I get on an interview with somebody, you can tell almost immediately whether they’re in their heads or if they just are themselves. So Truman would work great in reality — for the right concept.”

And that right concept might not even be The Truman Show in this day and age. Cornwell explains that the genre has largely evolved beyond the purely observational approach taken by Christof or, for that matter, the early seasons of The Real World. “In the last 25 years, our attention spans have gotten so much smaller, especially with people in their teens and twenties. They can barely watch thirty seconds on TikTok, so would they turn on The Truman Show and watch his whole day? Probably not! He would have to set something on fire every day to keep them watching.”

At the same time, Cornwell also thinks there’s a specific authenticity to Truman’s persona that regular reality TV watchers are craving. “I can tell you this — people are pretty fed up with cast members getting manipulated,” he says, adding that his company generally doesn’t cast for shows where producers are known to take a heavy hand in crafting storylines. “They’re also really savvy about when someone’s not being themselves. If they get the smell of manipulation from the production end, they’ll talk about it.”

“And I think that’s good!” he continues. “I want to keep things a bit more real: it makes the directors and production work harder, and it makes our jobs more important as casting directors. You’ve got to find the right people who are going to give it to you, so you don’t have to manipulate things.”

Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Carrey as Truman Burbank in The Truman Show. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

What’s next for Truman Burbank?

“Oh my god, he’s screwed! He’ll be the most famous person in the world for his entire life. Wherever he goes, he’ll always just be older Truman. But he’s just gotta get used to it. It’s like he’s part of the Rolling Stones: he can’t go anywhere without people staring at him.”

The Creator

Sheila Conlin knows exactly how she’d pitch The Truman Show to a network or streaming service — in fact, she already has. In 2014, the president and CEO of The Conlin Company was part of the team behind Utopia, an ambitious reality series that was poised to chronicle one year in the life of a new society created from the ground up by 15 willing participants. Their efforts would be documented by hundreds of cameras — some hidden and some not — and audiences could follow along via twice-a-week episodes or a 24/7 online livestream.

“It was a little bit different from The Truman Show, but we were kind of doing that series in its truest form,” Conlin says now. “We were literally telling these people: ‘Here’s your space, here’s your world: Now go and create it, and we’re just gonna watch.”

The brainchild of Dutch reality TV maestro John de Mol — who also dreamed up the formats for global unscripted hits like Big Brother and The VoiceUtopia had already launched successfully in Denmark, and Fox snapped up the rights for an American version for a reported $50 million. Conlin served as the show’s casting director and found the original 15 colonists (plus the new recruits set to replace the individuals voted out) out of the 5,000 people who auditioned to be part of building a new world for the people watching at home.

“Our production room looked just like the one in The Truman Show,” Conlin remembers now. “We had a huge wall with all these screens for all of our cameras. But the one in the movie only showed footage of Truman and a few other key players. With us, you saw almost everything and everyone behind-the-scenes.”

Unfortunately for Fox, Utopia didn’t become the next Truman Show in terms of viewership. Premiering on Sept. 7, 2014, the show struggled in the ratings and was canceled two months later, falling well short of the year-long run the producers had planned. Looking back, Conlin thinks that the need to follow an episodic format contributed to Utopia‘s early demise. “Trying to take all the footage from 500 cameras and edit it into a two-hour show just didn’t translate,” she notes. “For me, being able to watch the footage 24/7 was the most exciting part of Utopia. I had my iPad with me constantly and was glued to the livestream.”

Since Utopia, Conlin has continued to cast and produce multiple reality shows, and also created the 2021 Hulu docuseries, The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For. And if she were going to take a run at creating another Truman Show-like concept, she says that a robust livestream component would be essential. “Everyone pretty much lives their lives on social media today, so I’d have multiple feeds coming through to some sort of website you could tune into,” she says. “You could have millions of people watching what they’re doing everyday. You’d have to have the technology to create that bandwidth, but that’s definitely more possible now.”

In Conlin’s view, the biggest hurdle to clear now would be creating a version of The Truman Show where the goal wasn’t to mint celebrities. “For the last ten years or so, reality has really become a vehicle for someone to build a brand,” she says. “They’re not looking for five minutes of fame — they want to build their brand and take it to the next level. And I just don’t believe that’s what reality TV should be.”

Of course, in the world of The Truman Show, Truman Burbank is very much a brand, with his face adorning a myriad of merchandise. But he’s not complicit in his own cult of celebrity, and that’s a crucial distinction for Conlin, who admits that she’s “discouraged” about where the genre is now. “It’s really hard to sell a show that doesn’t have a celebrity attached or a real person who is famous for doing something else. It’s like, ‘Can we please shake this up and go back to shows where it’s about five minutes on TV and not 15 minutes of fame? Can we do reality shows about real people?’ There used to be a focus on an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, and I feel like we’ve lost that.”

“There’s a line that Christof has in The Truman Show,” she adds. “He tells Truman: ‘You were real. That’s what made you so good to watch.’ I want to start using that as my motto, because that’s really the essence of it. The ones on these shows that are real are also the ones that stand out the most.”

What’s next for Truman Burbank?

“What I felt most at the end of the film was super-happy for him and cheering him on. I don’t think I really cared what he was gonna do next! I think he’s going to ride off into the sunset and go to Fiji or something. But for sure he’d be recognized for years and years afterwards. He was part of everyone’s lives.”

The Scholar

Forget The Truman Show: media scholar Lindsay Giggey would rather binge The Meryl Show. “Truman’s boring,” she says with a laugh, noting that her fascination lies with his wife, Meryl Burbank. Or, more accurately, with Hannah Gill — the actress playing Meryl and was hand-picked by Christof to be Truman’s bride. Laura Linney portrays both roles, and does a masterful job separating the two personas, right up to the point where Hannah finally can’t maintain the illusion any longer and leaves both Truman and The Truman Show.

And Giggey would absolutely make the Meryl-centric spin-off appointment viewing. “Let’s do more about her!” she enthuses. “She would be using the celebrity she found on reality TV, so she’s going to have a great career. She’s gonna go to fan conventions, she’s gonna do FabFitFun boxes — she’ll be set.”

Laura Linney in The Truman Show. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Laura Linney plays Hannah Gill playing Meryl Burbank in The Truman Show. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Giggey is expert on the celebrity aspect of reality television, having written her PhD dissertation on that very subject for UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies Program. She’s also published articles about reality-generated stars like Kim Kardashian, who Giggey says understands the nature of the gig she’s signed up for. “The Kardashians are so good at what they do, because they’re really honest and confident in that honesty. I think their bonds are very real, and while a lot of the other things might be fake and manufactured, that core is believable.”

“That show also isn’t just about Kim,” Giggey adds, furthering her case that a real-world Truman Show would need to think beyond Truman to be successful. “If you’re a little older, maybe you’ll identify with Kourtney. And if you’re younger, maybe Kendall or Kylie will be your entry point. You can pick depending on where you are in your life, and I think that’s smart. Because if that one thing disappears, as Truman does, it all falls apart.”

In recent years, Giggey has moved beyond writing about reality television to working in reality television in various capacities. And being on that side of the screen, so to speak, led her to obsess over The Truman Show‘s production logistics on her most recent rewatch. “How do they pay for this?” she marvels. “The amount of labor involved in terms of the actors on-screen and everyone behind the scenes is so expensive. They also built an entire studio with an ocean in it! It’s just so ridiculously expensive.”

“And if you’re an actor on The Truman Show, what’s the day-to-day like?” she continues. “What are you doing when you’re not standing on the street waiting for Truman to walk by? You’re also kind of filtering who you are because you know that you’re going to be on camera, so there’s a level of performance that’s going on. It raises the whole question of whether we can ever achieve true reality when a camera is involved.”

What’s next for Truman Burbank?

“He would be on the cover of US Weekly all the time! I would be curious to know how he’s going to reclaim all the monies for his time and his labor. But also, what’s Christof going to do? He’s had this cushy job on the moon for thirty years. What show are you going to pitch after that?”

The Truman Show is currently streaming on Showtime

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