A look at the harsh reality of TV via video -- ''The Truman Show,'' ''Quiz Show,'' and ''Being There'' all have unique takes on the small screen

By Joe Neumaier
Updated January 15, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

A look at the harsh reality of TV via video

TV provides. From infancy on we live with and learn from its characters, sharing their lives and language. If in doubt, listen to twentysomethings speak as if their conversations were crafted by the writers of Friends. The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s parable about a man and the machine that made him, takes that idea to its extreme, merging TV’s ability to influence with a fable of lost identity.

It takes a spotlight almost falling on his head to alert Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) that something in his world isn’t right. In fact, things are too right. His work, his friends, his wife (Laura Linney), his life, are television’s hottest hit, on the air for 30 years running. The program is a Skinner box with sponsors; the movie is darker metaphor, its voyeuristic themes even more resonant when watched at home, where, without the trappings of a movie theater, it seems as if we too are observing a cornered life.

But Truman isn’t the first drama to see gentle horror behind the screen. In 1957, Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd examined celebrity’s seductive lure; just before the Reagan era, Being There depicted a man weaned on TV who becomes all things to all people; and Robert Redford’s Quiz Show finds, in a famous scandal, the medium’s ability to invent and destroy heroes. In all of them is the same search for self that haunts Truman Burbank.

A Face in the Crowd, written by What Makes Sammy Run? author Budd Schulberg, tracks the calculated rise of Lonesome Rhodes (a pre-sitcom Andy Griffith) from jailed bumpkin to national superstar — a pontificating country boy with a show loved by millions. But fame changes Lonesome; his corniness turns conniving, misanthropy seeps from behind his whip-crack smile, and he becomes flush with power after successfully coaching a political candidate on how to be ”a man of the people.” The way Lonesome — who goes from avuncular to cancerous — takes the public for a ride on the airwaves is prescient of another ”Arkansas traveler,” a current one with a presidential seal.

In Being There, the wry film of Jerzy Kosinski’s book, Chauncey Gardiner (or Chance, the gardener, whose mutterings are constantly misunderstood) couldn’t exist without television. Chauncey (Peter Sellers) is an impeccably dressed simpleton who drifts, entranced and imitative, from one TV to another. When his employer dies, a Washington industrialist (Melvyn Douglas) believes the fool’s idiocy to be thoughtfulness and mistakes his gardening tips for political wisdom.

Directed by the skilled Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home), Being There is a deadpan farce about a reverse Zelig, a blank slate in whom others see what they want. And Sellers, in his greatest performance, sublimely conveys Chauncey’s blithe lack of understanding and his utterly TV-created self. Just watching the great comic actor pull his wan face toward any televised image is a hilarious, slow-burn joke on TV’s hypnotic effect.

Unlike Chauncey, Quiz Show is razor sharp, appreciating TV’s better side even while indicting it for upping the ante on corruptibility. In 1958, attorney Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) ”puts television on trial” after Twenty-One game-show winner Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) — stung by NBC execs who find his Queens-bred ethnicity less appealing than the WASPiness of fellow contestant Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) — alleges that the show regularly provides answers in advance.

Yet Van Doren, a college instructor, is a good man doing bad things for the right reasons — to highlight smarts in ”the world’s biggest classroom.” In trusting his fame to the medium, Van Doren loses himself. Director Redford sees the fallout from the scandals not in the unsurprising news that the wheels were greased, but in the commodification of people and Van Doren’s fall from virtue. His anger is aimed at the execs who said simply, ”It’s entertainment.”

Truman Burbank’s life is entertainment, and he actually is a commodity — his every household item’s a product placement. Truman’s life is sitcom familiar, and a behind-the-scenes segment reveals that Truman was adopted by a corporation (with his memories available as greatest-hits packages). Andrew Niccol’s witty script tunes in to our hunger for reality and capacity for callousness — until televisionary Christof emerges. Played by Ed Harris with malign tenderness, the show’s ”conceiver and creator” sees Truman as a son — and gets angry when his boy wants to leave the program that revolves around him. As the soft-eyed Christof, and the world, watches, Truman tries to punch through the fourth wall to find his true self — not the one seen on TV. The irony is that they may turn out to be one and the same.

The Truman Show: A
A Face in the Crowd: B
Being There: A-
Quiz Show: A