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Everyman's Jim Carrey examines TV's omnipotence in The Truman Show

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 says it's all narcotizing and corrupt, that our lives have become indistinguishable from the shows we watch, is 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 taken in 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 film needs to connect with the very people to whom it condescends -- for example, the planned-community, Middle American boobs who look to a place like Seahaven for refuge. In general, the audiences for Truman, even when they are rallying him on, are shown to be a pretty lumpy lot. They are the consumers -- the 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 so-called 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 wasn't so busy trying to flatter us about how smart we are. Really, we're not all that smart.

Hollywood movies don't often dabble in "ideas," so when one does, 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 said just about everything The Truman Show did and was a lot fizzier. Brooks played a pushy TV director who films a year-long documentary about a "real" family and ends up driving them and himself and everybody else crazy. The movie got into the wacked-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 deadweight genre, "the message movie," and despite its new-style flash, that's exactly the genre into which The Truman Show 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 anymore? The Truman Show -- financed by one of the world's largest corporate conglomerates -- plays into a populist vogue that says 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 exiting 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.
Rated PG.
Directed by Peter Weir. With Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich and Natascha McElhone.

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