Sep 25, 2020
Movie Duel: The Truman Show vs. EDtv
In my Movie Duel columns, I opine on the subject of “movie twins”—two very similar movies released in close proximity to one another. It seems like a straightforward concept, but in the course of doing Movie Duels, I’ve learned that it’s trickier than you might expect.
What, after all, makes two movies “twins”? Are two movies twins if they have similar premises? My first Movie Duels column had two movies that seemed identical on paper—Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, both revisionist versions of Snow White with added emphasis on the role of the evil stepmother—but which, as one astute commenter pointed out, took their premises in such radically different directions that the only thing that makes people conflate the two is the fact that they were both released the same year. Is it fair to judge them both by the same standards?
What about Flight 93 and United 93? Both are historical docudramas about the hijacking of Flight 93, but one was a major Hollywood release directed by Paul Greengrass of The Bourne Identity fame, and the other was a cheapo TV movie. Are they comparable? Are The Prestige and The Illusionist—which are aesthetically similar, and both deal with 19th century magicians, but have radically different plots—in this category as well? What about Jobs and Steve Jobs? Both are high-profile biopics of Steve Jobs, but they were released almost two whole years apart. How much time has to pass between the release of two similar movies before their similarity isn’t notable anymore?
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What I’m getting at is that the decision to declare two movies “twins” is subjective, and has a heavy dose of personal bias in it. There’s no checklist that’ll do the job for you. And I’ll admit, when my wise and handsome editor suggested that my next column cover The Truman Show (1998) and EDtv (1999), I agonized over the propriety of the comparison. I saw both these movies in theaters, and except for the superficial similarity of their premises (ordinary men whose lives are made into 24-hour reality TV shows) they could hardly have been more different.
Ultimately, though, I bowed to my savvy and pleasant-smelling editor’s superior judgment, and I’m glad I did. Because as it turns out, there’s a reason each of these movies’ Wikipedia pages links to the other’s in the “See Also” section. Reality TV had already been a cultural force for a while (The Real World came out in 1992), but because movies take so long to make, they’re always a few years behind the zeitgeist on things like this. The Truman Show and EDtv represent Hollywood’s first fumbling attempts to get a handle on the new beast of reality television.
The Truman Show features Jim Carrey in his first high-profile dramatic role. Truman Burbank (Carrey) is an orphan adopted by a TV studio and raised in a camera-filled artificial town in which every single person in his life is a paid actor (including his wife and best friend) and everything that happens is fake. Truman doesn’t know he’s been on TV since birth, and his reactions to everything that goes on are genuine—or as genuine as they can be, under the circumstances. Everything’s directed under the watchful, godlike eye of Christoph (Ed Harris).
EDtv’s premise is an order of magnitude less ambitious. A TV executive (Rob Reiner) wants to do an experiment in 24-hour reality TV, and recruits producer Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres) to find an everyman whose life can be filmed. Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles into a video interview at a bar, wows Cynthia with his… something, and effortlessly wins the role. The movie’s narrative centers on Ed attempting to adjust his boring life to the constant presence of cameras and his questionable fame.
In The Truman Show, audiences got a glimpse of the great actor hiding behind Jim Carrey’s rubber face. Carrey plays Truman as a relentlessly peppy, cheerful sort with a relatable streak of vulnerability, anxiety, and loneliness. He pines after an old college girlfriend who was “written out” of the show for trying to tell him the truth about his world; he assembles pieces of magazine pictures into the shape of her face to remember her. He also aches to leave home and have adventures, but his severe fear of water prevents him from ever leaving his island town (thanks to the writers killing off his dad in a boating accident). As the plot progresses, Carrey’s performance adds layer after engrossing layer, as the façade of Truman’s existence frays and he struggles to maintain his pep while coming to doubt his sanity.
Ed of EDtv has none of that nuance. Matt McConaughey, his own rebirth as a dramatic actor still ten years away, plays Ed as a complete dud of a chuckling dudebro who aw-shuckses his way through a plot simultaneously outlandish and boring. A sharper movie could have made satirical hay out of the fact that Ed’s already basically a TV character: he lives alone in a swanky apartment in San Francisco (on a video store clerk’s salary!), his family members are all dumb, exaggerated caricatures, his personal relationships are filled with schlocky drama and farcical situations, and beautiful women inexplicably land in his lap.
But that’s pretty typical of the kind of missed opportunity that abounds in EDtv. The movie was billed as a comedy; The Truman Show wasn’t. Nonetheless, there are many more genuinely funny moments in the latter than in the former. The Truman Show gets a lot of joke mileage from the fact that, being ad-free, the Truman Show is funded by product placement: many of Truman’s friends will, in the middle of conversation with him, strike a spokesmodel pose and praise a product to a camera Truman can’t see, as if this is a perfectly normal thing to do (then again, how would Truman know it isn’t?).
There’s also a current of subtle yet savage humor made at the expense of the bucolic ‘50s simulacrum that is Seahaven, Truman’s fake hometown, and the absurdity of people tuning in to watch “real life” take place in a comically fake world that only ever existed in Mike Pence’s head.
The jokes in EDtv are few and far between, and they mainly concern the fact that the show succeeds by courting idiots, catering to their gutter tastes, and indulging their worst voyeuristic impulses. As far as commentaries on reality TV go, it’s pretty low-hanging fruit. Nonetheless, it still could have provided the superstructure for a withering send-up of the TV industry, were there enough else going on in the plot to provide any sort of ironic distance from the ridiculous situations happening onscreen. EDtv says people are stupid for watching Ed’s show, but what does that make us for watching EDtv?
It’s not a surprise that the main antagonists of both The Truman Show and EDtv are the TV producers that put on the respective programs. But in this area, as in most areas, EDtv goes for the obvious and the overdone, while The Truman Show takes some care to build something compelling, realistic, and relatable. EDtv has Rob Reiner playing every TV viewer’s automatic idea of a TV producer: he’s greedy, frivolous, callous, and speaks in a clipped, jargon-filled showbiz patois. His character is a cardboard cutout laid down on the X. Just a placeholder.
Truman’s producer Christoph (Ed Harris, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) is different: he’s an intense, contemplative man, and he truly believes his show is a work of art that can enrich its viewers and impart valuable insights into humanity that would otherwise be impossible. It’s his unshakable vision, his iron will, that brought this seemingly impossible project to fruition and sustains it every day. He doesn’t seem to sleep, and oversees Truman’s whole life, godlike, from a studio that’s literally in the “sky” above Truman. Love him or hate him (and many people, convinced he’s history’s greatest emotional abuser, do the latter), he commands respect.
So what are these movies saying about reality TV? Well, both attempt to explore the question of why we watch it. On this front, each movie comes up with a separate answer. People watch Truman because his environment is meticulously controlled to idealized perfection, but because his relationship to this world is genuine, people can imagine themselves leading lives as nice as his. People watch Ed, on the other hand, precisely because his world doesn’t seem controlled; he lives the same life as his viewers do, but his is important and glamorous simply because it’s being broadcast.
Both also make heavy use of control as a theme. EDtv starts out with the producers taking a hands-off approach in the interest of verité. When they find that this produces deadly boring results, they exert more and more control over the narrative; for example, getting a hotter girlfriend for Ed after audiences overwhelmingly rejected his last one, or exposing his mom’s affair to create drama.
The Truman Show, by contrast, is about the showrunners gradually losing control. The narrative is set into motion by Truman accidentally catching a glimpse of his supposedly dead father, who’s been recast as a homeless man. This revelation leads Truman to start noticing strange things about his world that had never registered with him before. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and Christoph finds it harder and harder to keep a leash on him.
Both movies, then, find circuitous ways to arrive at the same prescient conclusion: the central conceit of reality TV is bunk. A truly unscripted television program couldn’t exist. No one would ever point a camera at something and turn it on without having some idea how things were going to go. “Reality” doesn’t register on TV as “real” without a buttload of work, planning, and careful manipulation behind the scenes. This is an insight The Truman Show is aware of right from the start, but which EDtv stumbles into by accident without knowing what it’s found.
Which one ought to exist?
The Truman Show is the better movie, by far. However, poor as it is, EDtv deserves credit for more accurately predicting what reality TV would actually become. I’ll give them both a pass.