“What would you do if your whole world turns out to be fake? If an army of writers, producers and actors spent more than a year creating the most elaborate experiment on TV you? If they plotted your every move, taped 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’s also the verbatim voice-over introduction to every episode of the 2003 series The Joe Schmo Showwho, after an 11-year hiatus and no signs of life, recently announced a revival release in 2024.
The Truman Show‘s caustic commentary on the postmodern blurring of reality and entertainment sensations prophetic for every aspect of modern society, perhaps nowhere more so than in the recent resurgence of what we’ll call “gaslight media,” a subgenre of reality television in which the show itself is based on a fake premise that everyone involved is aware of. Everyone, that is, except for one person who has to believe that the situation they are in is real. In other words, what matters is that reality television is the closest thing 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 friendliest entry in the gaslight media canon, promote the show read with a tweet: “We truman showed a man.” That’s not just talk; that is precisely what they did.
Although cheating reality shows have never gone away (just look at the widely loathed shows of 2014). I want to marry “Harry”), their prominence in the zeitgeist faded in subsequent years, only to resurface, slightly altered, in our own moment. It is logical – we live in “the disinformation era,” where “gaslighting” is not just the norm, but the word of the year. But given that the primary draw of gaslight media has been the gloating of wannabe reality star watching humiliate oneself on television, something is wrong. “The wholesomeness of Jury duty and the goodness of [Ronald Gladden, the show’s unsuspecting star],” writes Kevin Fallon for The everyday beast, “are in many ways an antidote to the cynicism we all feel right now.” That’s one of the reasons the show took off. But why do we almost feel comforted see this in real life Truman showwhile for 25 years we’ve watched its titular show as a dystopian, quietly terrifying concept?
The answer is likely to be found in the movie itself, even if it may not be one we like. There were two things in the world Truman show (the television series in the movie) offered its in-universe audiences that no other series could: first, the implicit confidence that the reality they were watching was, in fact, real, which meant, second, the goodness to be found in Truman himself was also real.
Truman didn’t know he was being filmed, but his audience did, and this deception ultimately put viewers at ease – they felt the in-world Truman show, unlike anything else on television, did not lie to them, because this time they were lying. Considering we are now less trust in the media than almost ever before (including reality TV), it’s not surprising that being told upfront about media cheating draws us in – if we weren’t, we’d suspect it anyway. Along with the cringe factor it causes, there is a sense of relief when we see gaslighting happen to someone else; we feel in on the joke instead of being afraid that we are the punchline of it. Gaslight media feels more “real” than actual reality television. Jury duty is being honest with us, the viewers, even if that honesty comes at the expense of Gladden, the gag’s gaslight subject/star.
Whatever confidence that creates isn’t enough to win the hearts of the public, nor the in-world Truman show would have worked if Truman himself was an asshole, a loser. The appeal of is not just voyeurism itself, but this strange form of feel good voyeurism. Both Jury duty and the first season of Joe Schmo end up as surprisingly heartwarming television (their mean peers, on the other hand, tend to be close universal panned) – but not because they turn a normal person into one “real reality star” a la The Truman Showbut because from a normal person they are a “hero,” if Jury duty’s producers say so.
Much of the humor of these shows, well-intentioned or not, comes from watching someone take seriously a world that seems too ridiculous for us to believe. That’s also where the feel-good element comes in – trapped in situations designed to be outrageous and surrounded by actors playing insufferable people, Gladden or Jury duty and Matt Kennedy Gould of Joe Schmo season one form meaningful connections with annoying characters and thoughtfully navigate ridiculous circumstances. It’s sacred. Heroic.
This feel-good outcome was unexpected for the cast and crew of Joe Schmowho suffered a crisis of conscience midway through the overwhelming goodness of Gould, the man they spent a year preparing to humiliate, and eventually changed course and manipulated it to his advantage. But the hero’s journey was the guiding motivation of jury duty, according to producers And actors directly. And the worked. Watching Gould, watching Gladden, just feels good – it’s practical enough to restore one’s faith in the existence of good people (even if, again, it’s a recovery made possible by prolonged gaslighting, manipulation, and deception of the good person in question).
The comfort we found – that i found in Jury duty And Joe Schmo equal is warm, real and profoundly uncomfortable. It’s true that reality television is becoming more and more like it The Truman Show in the quarter century after the film’s release, but that’s even more unnerving We as viewers. In 1998, the premise of the film caused fear. But now we find easy humor and solace in watching such shows, in seeing a kind but gullible person making their way through a fake reality designed to push gullibility. We have less tolerance for sheer brutality on reality TV than we used to – shows that aired in the early 2000s would never today – but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy 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 touching message about friendship and human kindness. It’s all the mean fun of gaslight media with all the warmth of scripted sitcoms, made possible by that sense of “realness” of the inner world Truman show. But if The Truman Show was about putting a man in a nice pastel colored snow globe for the audience to look at at their leisure, things are slightly different now. These days we seem increasingly eager to shake the globe and giggle as the little guy inside stumbles and tries to find his footing, all so we can cheer when he does.