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I'll say this for EDtv: it knows better than The Truman Show what people like to watch.
The producers of that fictional TV program, "The Truman Show," created a placid environment for Truman but what hooked viewers was drama and soap opera. Viewers didn't want "Leave it to Beaver" (which, let's face it, at least had a storyline); they wanted "Jerry Springer." "The Truman Show" only became interesting when things got out of hand. Yet the producers never realized this. They kept trying to stuff the exciting genie back into the boring bottle.
"EDtv"'s producers, on the other hand, know what sells. Ed's girlfriend leaves him so they brainstorm. What was the name of that model-chick? Jill? Audiences liked her, let's bring her back. Ed waking up and scratching himself won't work. But Ed's brother fooling around with another woman and Ed going to console Shari, Ed's brother's girlfriend, and then getting involved with her? And Ed's father returning after twenty years and secrets being revealed and everyone not being who they seem? Hell, that's entertainment! It helps, too, that Ed is the calm, sweet center of this swirling soap opera. He's almost too good to be true. He's got a good ol' boy accent (for the men) but lives in San Francisco (for the women). He likes the ladies (for the men) but is a one-woman man (for the women). He drinks beer (for the men) but is never drunk (for the women). He's scruffy (for the men) but blindingly handsome (for the women). Yet even with all these attributes, "EDtv" would have died if it weren't for the soap opera of his family. He needs them to make the show interesting.
Unfortunately there's a deeper problem that EDtv shares with The Truman Show: both have a contradictory, almost schizophrenic relationship with the viewers of their respective shows. The Truman Show portrays its viewers in a darker, more isolated sense. You get old ladies with embroidered pillows and men sitting in bathtubs. It's a pathetic rabble that tune into "Truman." This seems right to me. I'm trying to think: Did anyone watch "EDtv" by themselves? Instead it was white college dormrooms and black families and gay couples and Latino kitchen help. There was a community atmosphere to the TV-watching when TV-watching is anything but. Television destroys community but of course Hollywood, and director Ron Howard, isn't about the make this statement. But did he have to make the opposite statement? That TV creates community?
It gets worse. Though both movies make villains of their producers, the real villains are in fact these TV-watchers, for it is they who keep the shows going. Both movies fudge on this message. For years now movies have used audiences within films to dictate our own audience response. We see viewers cheer so we're supposed to be happy. Viewers get sad, we sad. At the end of The Truman Show, Truman turns to his audience knowing for the first time it is his audience and says his catch-phrase, "...and if I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening and good night," and the viewers jump and shout and cheer, for Truman has escaped, he's won, he's beat the bad guys. Yet how much more effective if Truman had said, "Fuck you! You ruined my fucking life!" The audience (our surrogates) would have been shocked into silence, and in some small way we would have realized that we with our TV-watching ways were responsible, too. That is us up there: the guy in the bathtub and the sad rummies at the bar. We are responsible for what we create, and we created both Truman and Ed. In effect, TV viewers did ruin Truman's life, and to suggest otherwise, even obliquely, is to suggest something so massively dishonest it borders propaganda.
Of course we do this in real life as well. Princess Di is killed because of the paparazzi, whom we condemn; but the paparazzi simply sell their photos to magazines and tabloids which we buy. Without buyers, no paparazzi, and Princess Di lives. Without viewers, no "Truman Show," so Truman is free. Without ratings, no "EDtv," so Ed can return to his normal life. In these types of movies, the enemy is us but Hollywood keeps telling us the enemy is them.
October 3, 1999
© 1999 Erik Lundegaard