Television also brings products directly into our lives. That's why it's such a great medium for the sell; the items put up for sale on screen are, in a sense, already in our homes -- they're right there, in our living rooms, gleaming back at us from the tube and waiting to be reeled in. The Truman Show makes this point rather too bluntly: All through Truman's televised life we're privy to product plugs displayed front and center -- beer labels, kitchen appliances, food brands. That's insidious, all right, but, of course, in TV land, what's worse are the plugs you don't detect.

The Truman Show comes along at a time when television is a particularly hot button to push. Everything from the O.J. Simpson extravaganza to the two Jerrys -- Springer and Seinfeld -- has been put forth by politicos as an example of how zombiefied we are by the box. If television -- so goes the thinking -- can unify the mass audience, then surely it also sets the woefully low tone for that audience's values. "Real" news has blurred into "real" events staged for the news, such as the recent incident in Los Angeles in which a man killed himself on the freeway for the delectation of the local eyewitness-news skycams. We've gone from thinking that television is a baby sitter, a time-waster, a magic carpet, a drug, to something far more unfathomed. In The Truman Show television is like some mystical force -- a death ray -- that exists apart from its manipulators. Christof may be the deity of the piece, but ultimately he's only serving the force. Television is an alternate universe that has become our primary universe.

It might be useful to look back at the last movie to really lambaste the tube -- the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted 1976 Network, which also zoomed through the Zeitgeist. Like The Truman Show, Network provoked a lot of hand-wringing about the awfulness of television, but it was far more traditional in its attacks. Peter Finch's Howard Beale, the "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves," rallied his audiences against TV by delivering on-air sermons to his rapt followers.

Here's a sample: "Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamn amusement park. It's a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, football players. We're in the boredom-killing business, so if you want the truth, go to God, go to your guru, go to yourself because that's the only place you're going to find any truth."

Beale is one in a long line of freaked-out movie messiahs who speak the "truth." (The latest is Warren Beatty's Senator Jay Bulworth in Bulworth, who lets it all hang out on television because he's too crazy to lie any more and ends up a political hero and a sacrificial lamb. Like Beale he's finally assassinated for his troubles.) But Chayefsky also gives us William Holden's Max Schumacher, a deposed network news producer who doesn't need to be freaked to tell it like it is. His big kiss-off scene with Faye Dunaway's predatory child-of-the-media TV executive has op-ed stamped all over it. He calls her "television incarnate... indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy." For her, he says, "All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are the same as a bottle of beer." He tells her, "I'm real. You can't switch to another station."

The difference between Network and The Truman Show is that Chayefsky still had a soft spot for the good old days of television -- presumably the so-called Golden Age of the '50s, when he was writing original network dramas such as Marty. There's a God hanging over Network, but it's not some Christof-like puppeteer; it's the spectre of Edward R. Murrow. Chayefsky's weepiness for the bygone greats kept him from totally trouncing the medium. It wasn't television itself that was the enemy; rather, it was the people who had commandeered its power. He was partway to The Truman Show in his own film when he had Beale declaim to the TV audience, "You're beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal." In The Truman Show, the camouflage is complete. Christof explains to an interviewer, "We accept the reality of the world we live in. It's as simple as that." But the movie's "reality" is created for the camera. You can run but you can't hide.

In its own mystic, ethereal way, The Truman Show is as dewy with sentimentality as Network. It posits that the only person with the strength to fight back at the banalization of TV-induced life is the one man who is untainted by it -- Truman the Innocent. And, boy, is he innocent. There hasn't been a movie hero this wet behind the ears since Forrest Gump. He's practically infantilized. It's significant that Truman is never shown making love to his wife; it's difficult to imagine him doing so anyway. (The couple is childless.) If we are meant to identify with Truman, it's because he represents all of us before the fall -- before we succumbed to television's siren song.

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