Since The Truman Show premiered 25 years ago, the premise—about a man unaware his entire life has been a reality TV program—has gone from thought experiment to reality.
Jury Duty, which recently debuted on Amazon Freevee, is the most recent example. The docu-style show follows a group of jurors through a civil trial. The process looks and feels real, but everything, from the judge to the jurors to the case itself, is fictional with the exception of one “juror,” a likable 29-year-old contractor from San Diego named Ronald.
What I find most interesting about Jury Duty is how it positions itself. It wants us to know that it means well. Yes, Ronald doesn’t know he’s being duped, but everyone behind the scenes is looking out for him—rooting for him, even, by setting him up for a hero’s journey. “We never wanted to do a show where we were punching down and Ronald was the butt of the joke,” co-creator and executive producer Lee Eisenberg told AP. “I think that the show has a warmth and an optimism and feels winning, while still being hilarious and weird and surprising.”
In this way, Jury Duty comes off like the kinder, gentler cousin of The Rehearsal, comedian Nathan Fielder’s experiment in human behavior, which came out last year. Fielder, who is working with HBO money, goes to extreme lengths through elaborate sets and hijinks to help participants “rehearse” major moments in their life to family, friends, acquaintances that don’t know they’re part of it. But the “Fielder Method” does not coat itself in niceties. Instead, the show’s genius is the constant state of unease and downright discomfort it projects on the audience. The result makes all of us feel culpable in the culture of media surveillance and voyeurism that this kind of TV format has normalized.
We’ve been wading into these uncomfortable waters all the way back to the forerunner of contemporary reality TV shows. Starting in the late 1940s, the pioneer of them all, Candid Camera, used early hidden-camera techniques to capture unguarded moments of ordinary people for mass entertainment.
Candid Camera creator Allen Funt saw himself as a “student of human nature.” Born in Brooklyn in 1914, he attended Cornell University where he briefly was a research assistant to the influential social psychologist Kurt Lewin. After graduation, he worked as an adman until he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where he brought his fascination for human behavior to radio. But it was while he was recording GI life that he encountered an issue: The soldiers he interviewed tensed up when he started his recorder and only let their guard down when he stopped it. What, he wondered, would happen if they didn’t know they were being captured on tape?
Candid Camera was his answer. Starting as Candid Microphone on the ABC Radio Network in 1947, it moved to ABC Television a year later. Using recordings—first audio captured by hidden microphones, and later video by hidden cameras—the show sought to catch unsuspecting people “in the act of being themselves.”
From the start, Funt wanted to create the most realistic situation possible: “[A] good conceptual idea is only the start,” he would later write in an article for Psychology Today. “You have to make lots of adjustments to create viewer believability and really involve the subject. You need the right setting, one in which the whole scenario will fit and make sense to the audience even when it doesn’t to the actor.”
The setups were endless: Buster Keaton played a klutz at a lunch counter. Jayne Mansfield a damsel in distress on the way to the airport. Over several appearances, Muhammad Ali offered a range of performances, from pretending to be a messenger delivering packages to appearing on a schoolyard to surprise kids. The show revealed the gag at the end of each stunt, with its famous catchline: “Smile, You’re on Candid Camera.”
Audiences were enraptured, but critics called foul on the deceptive nature of the show. After all, when you broke it down, Funt was putting unsuspecting “marks” on national TV for entertainment. In Real People and the Rise of Reality Television, historian Michael McKenna writes that over the years Candid Camera was charged with being everything from “invasive,” “misrepresentative,” “exploitative,” to “cruel.”
Fred Nadis, a scholar of Candid Camera, writes that these accusations may have hit home for Funt, and even inspired him to create Pictures of People, a show where he traveled the country, asking people who knew they were being recorded to speak candidly about their lives and experiences. But if you’ve never heard of Pictures of People, there’s a reason. The 1963 program only lasted a year.
Audiences didn’t want transparency, they wanted Candid Camera. Solid ratings mixed with cheap production value unlocked a formula for success that’s continued to be replicated and advanced to this day.
By the time The Truman Show debuted in 1998 (six years after a 1992 play by Mark Dunn called Frank’s Life, also about a man unaware his life is a reality TV program), the spectacle of the O.J. Simpson murder trial had already kicked off the era of reality TV as we know it.
The Truman Show attempted to pump the breaks, asking us to consider if the future of televised “reality” was worth the human cost involved. At an early stage in production, director Peter Weir even tried to make this point more explicit by having cameras pointed at audiences in movie theaters to make their reactions become part of the film. Was this what we really wanted?
Roger Ebert praised Weir in his review of The Truman Show, observing that “the underlying ideas made the movie more than just entertainment” and the film brought “into focus the new values that technology is forcing on humanity.”
But while The Truman Show became a critical and commercial success, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. Audiences might have seen the mirror being reflected back on them, but they didn’t care. Candid Camera continued to run in various iterations until 2014, when it was surpassed by bolder offerings in the format from Punk’d to The Joe Schmo Show. More advanced technology and methods of surveillance continue to pave the way for the age we’re readily entering today where everything from iPhones to Amazon Ring doorbells enable us to turn nonconsenting strangers into viral content.
It’s what stopped me from watching The Rehearsal at first. Yes, at least the people involved in the show knew what they were signing up, but it was hard not to see them as civilians all the same. Who signed off on this? Did they get any media training? The Rehearsal takes these questions and runs with them. It all comes to a head in the episode “Pretend Daddy,” where Remy, one of the child actors cast to play Fielder’s son, gets confused and starts to think Fielder is his actual dad and tells him he loves him. Remy’s mother explains that his real father is absent from his life, and Fielder attempts to explain that they’re just acting, but Remy just doesn’t understand. It’s a deeply uncomfortable episode, and Fielder holds the lens unblinkingly as it unfolds. He implicates not just himself but us watching along at home, viewing this footage that’s ostensibly billed as entertainment.
Jury Duty gives the audience an easier pass. Since the show came out, Ronald himself has said in interviews that the experience is one that he’ll never forget.
Even so, it’s hard not to see him like one of the “marks” on Candid Camera. Because Ronald never opted in. This was a path that he was unknowingly put on, so that we on the other end of the camera can enjoy watching him navigate this fantasia.
The actor James Marsden, who plays an exaggerated version of himself on Jury Duty, has spoken about how he only wanted to do the show if it supported Ronald. “I needed to make sure it was more than just getting a laugh out of it.” But it’s hard not to read the discomfort in his comments when he addresses the ethical questions around the show. As he said himself, “We’re kind of playing god a little bit in this.”