Film Cities: The Truman Show, Urban Planning, and Television’s Evolution

Recently I watched the 1998 movie The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man whose entire life is a 24-hour reality TV show. The catch? He doesn’t know it. Adopted by a TV corporation as a child, Truman’s life is dictated by the show’s mastermind, Christof, played to perfection by Ed Harris. The show takes place in a gigantic domed movie set that depicts a Florida island town called Seahaven, lifted straight out of the ideal small town suburban community from the 1950s. Truman’s character is suggestive of Jimmy Stewart’s characters of Mr. Smith and George Bailey for his boy-scout optimism and naiveté. The show’s massive expenses (as well as the fact that it has been running for the 30 years of Truman’s life) are paid for by product placement.

The irony is that not only is The Truman Show a satire of reality TV, but also of urban planning. Seahaven was filmed in Seaside, one of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk’s first planned New Urbanist communities, characterized by mixed uses and walkability. Seaside was designed to provide a community feel that countered suburbia, and felt authentic—not fake, like a movie set, which Truman eventually determines to be unsatisfactory.

Seaside is intended to be a walkable community—but why does it look so artificial in the film? Is it because people are so accustomed to suburban realities such as commuting everywhere—to the grocery store, to work, and to school?

In the film, Seahaven is bright, colorful, and beautiful. When the film steps back to the outside world, with everyone watching The Truman Show—dull colors such as gray and earth tones make the outside world look cold and depressing. While Truman comes to feel trapped in his colorful bubble, his master-controlled life is set in an environment much more beautiful than reality.

Our reality today closely mirrors the world of The Truman Show—but in different ways. Truman’s life is wholesome, American, commercialized—everything we could expect from the idealized American dream encapsulated in Seaside. American reality TV, however, has diverged from that path—just by looking at the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo, we see exploitative trash compared to Truman’s wholesome and Jimmy Stewart-esque life.

Truman’s 24-hour, 7 days a week, 30-year spectacle of a television run can be better analyzed when we look at a different country’s television programs—Norway.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal described how many Norwegians obsessively watch extremely long television programs. Earlier this year, Norwegians stayed up for a continuous 30-hour interview with Hans Olav Lahlum, one of Norway’s most popular authors. In 2011, 2.5 million Norwegians (that’s half the country’s population) tuned in to watch a ferry crawl across Norway’s coast. The program’s length? 134 hours.

134 hours. That’s almost six days.

Another television show featured salmon swimming upstream for 18 hours, and viewers complained to the network that the program wasn’t nearly long enough.

The WSJ article explains that Norwegians have a habit for hunkering down in the cold winter months given their climate and relative wealth.

But enough about Norway—Americans spend too much time watching television as it is. The Truman Show’s central conceit—a reality show becomes a massive, generation-spanning media franchise—criticizes the habits of watching too much television—where one man’s life is exploited not for his own benefit, but for the purposes of corporations. In American reality TV, the people being filmed are paid handsomely by the network, though the constant watching of outsiders usually ends badly for the shows’ stars. (Jon and Kate’s divorce, Lamar Odom’s free fall from NBA relevance). If it ever comes to the point where people like Truman don’t even enjoy the consequences (good and bad) of reality TV, then the power of television has definitely gone out of hand.

The way we watch television is definitely in flux. Now, it’s easier to watch television than ever before. Netflix and Amazon Prime subscribers can burn through entire TV seasons in massive binge sessions, thanks to Netflix’s policy of releasing TV seasons it has produced all at once, (including the Emmy-nominated House of Cards and the fourth season of Arrested Development), instead of timing the releases week by week. While Americans don’t watch boats for days on end, they do watch Downton Abbey and Homeland to similar lengths. Is this good? Is this bad? The only conclusion that can be made is that it’s different. It would be better if people, you know, got stuff done rather than binged on Netflix television, but regular live network shows are so inferior to the stuff produced on the movie channels that perhaps people are better off wasting time on uninterrupted storytelling and better writing than commercials and lousy writing.

There’s always a choice—as Truman is given in his series finale.

At the end of the Truman Show, Truman sails a boat to the edge of the set, and he discovers the exit to the real world, prompting a confrontation with Christof. Christof announces, in thinly veiled existentialist satire, “I am the Creator—of a TV show that brings joy to millions.” (His name is Christ-off, for Pete’s sake—a bona fide Christ-like or antichrist figure). Christof, in a last ditch effort to keep the Truman Show running, tells Truman that he has created the world of Seahaven just for him, and that it is a better world than that he would find outside.

Truman responds with his catchphrase, “Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya—good afternoon, good evening, and good night.” He disappears from view.

The television watchers celebrate Truman’s finale, but quickly grow bored, and change the channel.

Americans might be fortunate that they don’t watch salmon swimming upstream for 18 hours, but the fact that the alternative—Honey Boo Boo and House of Cards—are much less wholesome.

Here’s to Norway. At least the salmon don’t care if they are filmed. Truman, once he found out, cared quite a bit.

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To read the aforementioned WSJ article, follow this link:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324904004578539110228634592.html (photo also from WSJ)

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