Even though it was released nearly 20 years ago, it’s not at all lost on me that writing about a film like The Truman Show in 2017 feels perhaps a bit too on-the-nose. Its premise, if explained to someone unfamiliar with it, would seem overwrought and obvious to anyone who has lived through the past calendar year—decade, maybe?—but here it is anyway: A man, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), figures out that his entire life has been a TV show. Everyone is in on it—his neighbors, his wife, even his lifelong best friend—all of it occurring at the behest of a genius director, Christof (Ed Harris), who watches from above, stationed safely inside a fake moon.
Where do you even begin with a premise like that? Do you write about the prevalence of Facebook, in which so many of us are determined to maintain a pristine museum of self? What about the meteoric rise of reality television and how, this past summer, producers on Bachelor In Paradise refused to step in and prevent what may have been a non-consensual sexual encounter between two cast members? What about the increasingly blurred lines between the performed self and the private self in all matters of life, escalating so dramatically that just over a year ago we elected one of the worst public and private figures of all time to the most powerful position in the world?
Ultimately, I decided to write about Jake Paul.
Perhaps you are living the version of your life where you don’t yet know about Jake Paul, to which I say, “Mazel tov.” Jake Paul is a ruddy-faced, blond Vine star turned Youtube star turned Disney Channel star turned ex-Disney Channel star. He’s tall and boisterous, never without a smirk plastered onto his face. My first exposure to Paul was a KTLA segment in which a reporter speaks to him about the ways in which he and Team 10—his band of vloggers, all of whom live in his house and collaborate on videos with him, like a millennial Fagin without the anti-semitism—were making his neighborhood a living hell. In the segment, Paul actively agitates the reporter, egging on his fans and allowing his friends to climb on the news van. It was the fall out from this that led to the “ex” in “ex-Disney Channel star.”
The welcome video on the landing page of his Youtube channel provides a little bit of context: Ohio-born and raised, the fastest YouTube channel to reach 10 million subscribers, and then a montage of the star doing all sorts of stunts. Motorcycling on the salt plains? Check. Trampolining over the ocean? Check. Spraying water on bikini-clad girls washing a luxury car? Mais oui. “I was a savage from Day One,” he brags. It goes on to explain his interests as: hard work, “mental toughness” (???), GUNS (all caps), fast vehicles, and competition. The final message is a supercut of Paul saying: “And I will see you tomorrow, because it’s everyday, bro.”
To compare them might seem sacrilegious—please do not think for a second that I believe Jake Paul is as talented as Jim Carrey. But there is something outrageously uncanny about Carrey, a man whose career has rested, in part, on his boyishness, and Paul, who seems equally ageless in nature. Both are trapped in an eternity of youth. You don’t want to be filmed and documented in your older age, when your face is lined with wrinkles and parts of you begin to sag. This is why we have an “untag” feature. You want to be taut and energetic. Paradise is for the young.
“It is a truly blessed life,” Meryl, Truman’s wife, played by Hannah Gill (Laura Linney), says in the prologue of the film, and she’s not wrong. Truman lives in the 1950s-style seaside utopia of Seahaven Island, soaked in its nostalgic Americana. Nearly every day brings the same joy and comfort. Truman steps outside of his house on his way to work, greets the family across the street—“Good morning! Oh, and in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!”—and his crotchety neighbor’s hyperactive dalmatian. He works a normal day at his insurance sales job, goes home to have dinner with his wife, and enjoys a beer with his best friend Marlon, played by Louis Coltrane (Noah Emmerich). Of course it’s a blessed life: it’s constantly reinforcing a nostalgia for itself. “The Truman Show” even comes with its own Talking Dead-style discussion show called “Tru-Talk.”
All of Seahaven Island is immaculately lit. And it has to be, of course, because the whole thing is shot on a soundstage, so large it can be seen from space. But one day, during its opening morning montage, the illusion begins to crumble. A light falls from the sky, crashing down in front of Truman’s feet. Damage control is swift, however, and moments later, as Truman listens to Seahaven’s classical music station, they credit the light to an aircraft shedding parts. The show must go on. It’s Day 10,909.
In the opening seconds of Jake Paul’s video “MY 2017 YOUTUBE REWIND **365 DAYS OF VLOGS**” which commemorates his full year of daily vlogging (putting him roughly 29 years behind Truman), he pauses for a back and forth with someone behind the camera.
“Jake,” the voice says.
“Nathan,” Jake responds.
“That’s not—” Nathan begins to instruct.
“Is the lighting good?” Jake interrupts, fixing his hair.
“No, yeah—” the voice stammers, “but—”
“Okay, cool,” Jake replies, and the video resumes as normal, whatever the issue was unacknowledged. The lighting in Paul’s videos is as equally bright and abrasive as that in Truman’s world. Everything reeks of the Terry Richardson-esque hyper-exposed style that is popular these days, as if to suggest every single light imaginable is on the central figure. Why include this tidbit? This outtake? Is it for realism—he cares about the lighting, just like anyone else?
The opening moments of The Truman Show are crucial upon initial watching: everything is presented to you up front. “It’s all true, it’s all real,” Marlon insists, “nothing here is fake. Nothing you see on this show is fake. It’s merely controlled.” Isn’t that a more peaceful way of living? they seem to be asking. Imagine your life without chaos. You know your friends will always be there to have a beer with you down by the dock. You know your significant other will always love and support you. But Meryl doesn’t love Truman. Her eyes deceive her in every declaration, a hollowness echoed in her speech. She wants to have a baby, but at what personal cost to her? To him? Is it worth mentioning Jake Paul was also fake-married at one point, “for the views,” as they say?
It’d be one thing if Truman fully bought into the facade of Seahaven Island—and for a significant portion of his life, he did. But his doubts didn’t begin or end with the crumbling lighting structure of the soundstage. He’s had questions for a while. For one, he has a tendency to pick up a fashion magazine on his way into the office, eagerly flipping through photos of female models at his desk at work—not for any perverse reason, but to try to recreate the face of a girl he once knew. (Isn’t it always a girl you once knew?) The girl in question, Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), or Lauren Garland, was also an actress, but the delusion didn’t sit well with her, and on a fateful excursion, she frantically explains to Truman that everything is fake before another actor, her “father,” whisks her off saying they’re going to Fiji.
It’s not so much the idea that everything is fake that addles Truman; it’s that he can’t figure out how to get to Fiji. To leave Seahaven is practically unheard of, and for good reason: if Truman leaves the show is done. And so Christof, ever the architect, built in a system to prevent this: He engineered Truman’s fear of water—Fiji is an island, you know—from a traumatic childhood experience in which Truman’s father on the show, another actor, of course, “drowns” in a storm while the two are sailing. But when increasingly contrived circumstances arise to prevent him from flying to Fiji, he attempts a road trip out of Seahaven in a manic attempt to see what happens. It fails, of course, and the claustrophobia of his hometown starts to truly wear on Truman’s psyche. So who does Christof dig up from the past? Only Truman’s father, memory conveniently gone, returned to Seahaven Island for his son. Truman is momentarily distracted—the flagrant disregard for all that he accepts as true is horrifying—and yet another amazingly forced event bolsters the ratings of “The Truman Show.” Christof has done it again.
Because as anyone in the media or television or content-for-cash industry knows, ratings and views are how you make money. Take Truman, for example, constantly surrounded by his wife and best friend who plug the best beer, the best cocoa, the best kitchen utensils with a wink of an eye and a frontward-facing product. It’s shameless, no doubt, but what isn’t in this day and age? Paul is no better, that’s for sure. Every single video mentions a plug for new merch—“link in bio,” to use the term correctly—be it t-shirts or hats or literally anything. In “The Jake Paulers Anthem”—a cacophonous rap song praising his fans as dozens of preteens dance behind him—one of the reasons the Jake Paul Army (we’ll dive into that phraseology another time) is the strongest is because they buy the merch. They wear the merch. Not so different, really, than the elderly women who watch “The Truman Show,” arms wrapped around a pillow with his face plastered on it.
I don’t doubt the commitment of the thousands, if not millions, of teenagers who love Jake Paul, but the fans of “The Truman Show” love Truman more than anything. In the final scenes between Christof and Truman, the director tells his star, “You were real, that’s what made you so good to watch.” Christof loves Truman, and I believe him. But the world he created has tormented Truman for 30 years. His fanbase is devout; to them, Truman is holy. As the world watches him decide whether to stay in the fantasy or walk through a door in the sky, they know—perhaps better than the creator—what is right for him. And the whole world erupts in rapturous applause and tears when he signs off with his catchphrase and moves on. He’s finally free, and they rejoice. There’s no desire to hold him captive for the sake of the show. Free will is perhaps the greatest content of all.
Paul, of course, exists in a world of his own making. There is no Christof pulling the strings. He’s got a manager, sure, and a director and maybe a makeup technician or someone operating a boom mic. But this high-octane, trampoline-fueled orgy of stunts and poorly-mixed rap songs is his alone. He’s both God and the son of God—and he sucks, which is what makes it interesting. It’s pure artifice, a golden cow. For every 1 million likes, 2 million dislikes. I watch because I loathe him, which can’t be healthy, of course, but it is what it is. I’ve become as enraptured as anyone else, fueled by spite and pity and condescension. His world is not better than mine, I tell myself, even though he and his housemates are decked out in designer clothing, designer jewelry, designer cars. It’s a hatewatch at its most raw.
And that was perhaps the most jarring thing about the world of The Truman Show: people love him, unabashedly. We don’t see those who can’t stand Truman, who think he’s a buffoon or naive or useless. It’s the opposite of a hatewatch, and that type of optimism feels unattainable to me in 2017. In a world where we’re now all the makers of our own online version of “The Truman Show,” I’m astounded by those, not unlike myself, motivated by jealousy and spite. Our show is better. Ours is more genuine. I’m not hawking merch, I’m not pulling stunts. I’m normal—isn’t that what we all strive for? But at the end of each day, as I turn off the lights in my apartment, the glow of the streetlamps inching in through my windows, it’s impossible not to wonder what else might be on.