“What would you do if your entire world turned out to be fake? If an army of writers, producers, and actors spent over a year creating TV’s most elaborate experiment around you? If they plotted your every move, recorded it 24 hours a day, and put it on national television?”
This is, of course, the central premise of The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s beloved 1998 masterpiece which celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this month. It is also the verbatim voice-over introduction to each episode of the 2003 series The Joe Schmo Show, which, following an 11 year hiatus and no signs of life, recently announced a revival set to release in 2024.
The Truman Show’s biting commentary on the postmodern blurring of reality and entertainment feels prophetic for every aspect of modern society, perhaps nowhere more than in the recent resurgence of what we’ll call “gaslight media,” a subgenre of reality television wherein the show itself is based on a fake premise that everyone involved in is aware of. Everyone, that is, except for one person who is made to believe the situation they’re in is real. In other words, it’s about the closest reality television can get to realizing Weir’s 1998 vision, a fact the shows themselves wear like a badge. Kerry O’Neill, a writer on Jury Duty, the latest and kindest entry in the gaslight media canon, promoted the show with a tweet reading: “We truman showed a man.” That’s not just talk; that is exactly what they did.
We truman showed a man and i can finally talk about it!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/OucD5icVSw
— Kerry O'Neill (@tomskerrittfan1) March 7, 2023
Although deceptive reality shows never vanished (just look at 2014’s widely detested I Wanna Marry “Harry”), their prominence in the zeitgeist faded in ensuing years, only to reappear, somewhat altered, in our own moment. It makes sense – we live in “the misinformation age,” where “gaslighting” is not only the norm, but the word of the year. But considering that the primary draw of gaslight media has been the schadenfreude of watching wannabe reality stars humiliate themselves on television, something isn’t adding up. “The wholesomeness of Jury Duty and the goodness of [Ronald Gladden, the show’s unsuspecting star],” writes Kevin Fallon for The Daily Beast, “are, in many ways, antidotes to the cynicism we all feel right now.” That’s one reason the show took off as it did. But why do we feel almost comforted watching this real-life Truman Show, when we’ve spent 25 years viewing its titular show as a dystopian, quietly terrifying concept?
The answer is likely found within the movie itself, even though it might not be one we like. There were two things the in-world Truman Show (the television series within the movie) offered its in-universe audience that no other series could: one, the implicit trust that the reality they were watching was, in fact, real, which meant that, two, the goodness found in Truman himself was real as well.
Truman didn’t know he was being filmed, but his audience did, and this deception ended up setting viewers at ease – they felt the in-world Truman Show, unlike everything else on television, wasn’t lying to them, because this time they were in on the lie. Considering that right now we are less trusting of media than almost ever before (including reality television), it’s not surprising that being told up front about media deceit draws us in — if we weren’t, we’d suspect it anyways. Along with whatever cringe factor it provokes, there’s a sense of relief when we watch gaslighting happen to someone else; we feel in on the joke rather than afraid we’re the punchline of it. Gaslight media feels “realer” than actual reality television. Jury Duty is being honest with us, the viewers, even though that honesty comes at the expense of Gladden, the gaslight subject/star of the prank.
Whatever trust that creates isn’t enough to win the hearts of the audience any more than the in-world Truman Show would have worked if Truman himself was a jerk, a loser. The appeal of isn’t just the voyeurism itself, but this strange form of feel-good voyeurism. Both Jury Duty and the first season of Joe Schmo end up being surprisingly heart-warming television (their mean-spirited peers, on the other hand, tend to get near universally panned) – but not because they turn a normal person into a “genuine reality star” a la The Truman Show, but because they turn a normal person into a “hero,” as Jury Duty’s producers put it.
Much of the humor of these shows, well-intentioned or not, stems from watching someone take seriously a world that seems, to us, too ridiculous to believe. That’s where the feel-good element comes from too — trapped in situations designed to be infuriating and surrounded by actors playing insufferable people, Gladden of Jury Duty and Matt Kennedy Gould of Joe Schmo season one form meaningful connections with annoying characters and thoughtfully navigate ridiculous circumstances. It’s saintlike. Heroic.
This feel-good outcome was unexpected for the cast and crew of Joe Schmo, who had a crisis of conscience partway through due to the overwhelming goodness of Gould, the man they spent a year preparing to humiliate, and ended up switching course and rigging it in his favor. But the hero’s journey was the guiding motivation of Jury Duty, according to producers and cast members alike. And it worked. Watching Gould, watching Gladden, just feels good – it’s practically enough to restore one’s faith in the existence of good people (even though it is, again, a restoration made possible by prolonged gaslighting, manipulation, and deceit of the good person in question).
The comfort we found – that I found – in Jury Duty and Joe Schmo alike is warm, real, and profoundly uncomfortable. It’s true that reality television has grown to look more and more like The Truman Show in the quarter-century following the film’s release, but even more unnerving, so have we as viewers. In 1998 the movie’s premise provoked dread. Now, though, we find easy humor and comfort in watching shows like it, in seeing a kind but gullible person bumble their way through a fake reality designed to strain credulity. We have less tolerance for pure cruelty on reality TV than we used to – shows that aired in the early 2000s would never be able to air today – but that doesn’t mean we don’t still love a good laugh at someone’s expense. Jury Duty is an excursion into an exploitative fake reality that somehow still leaves us with warm fuzzies and a moving message about friendship and human goodness. It’s all the mean fun of gaslight media with all the warmth of scripted sitcoms, made possible by that sense of “realness” from the in-world Truman Show. But if The Truman Show was about placing a man in a pretty pastel snow globe that its audience could peer into at its leisure, things are somewhat different now. Today, we seem ever more eager to shake the globe and giggle as the little man inside stumbles and tries to find his footing, all so we can cheer when he does.