PLEASANTVILLE: A Surreal Tribute To The Golden Age Of Television

Imagine you are given a TV remote that has the power to transport you into another dimension and back in time. Imagine you accidentally allow the remote to do it. Well, that’s exactly what happens in the 1998 film Pleasantville. The movie, written and directed by Gary Ross, tells the tale of late ’90s teenage twins who get stuck inside of a 1950s television show and find their way through it.

One night, while popular Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) is waiting impatiently for her date with a cute classmate to start, she sits in front of the television with her nerdy twin brother David (Tobey Maguire). As teenage siblings do, Jennifer and David fight over what to watch in the living room. David turns on his favorite TV show – a lighthearted 1950s sitcom called “Pleasantville”, and to say David is a diehard fan would be an understatement. Jennifer become infuriated because the whole point of her night is to watch an MTV concert on TV with her new boyfriend.

As they battle it out, the remote is violently flung to the ground and shattered. Next, a strange and mysterious old man (Don Knotts – a brilliant casting choice, as always) hops out of a television repair van and rings the doorbell. Not knowing who he is, Jennifer lets him into the house and he explains that he is there to fix the remote. Well, he actually gives David and Jennifer a brand new and complicated looking remote.

Transported into Pleasantville

He insists that they use it with a mischievous gleam in his eye…I actually thought the scene was kind of creepy in a funny kind of way. To think of Don Knotts as creepy cracks me up: You may remember him as the lovable and legendary Barney Fife in the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show – a show similar to Pleasantville. To know him as Barney Fife makes his character in this movie so much more enjoyable. He even cusses in one scene – I about lost my mind hearing him say such words!

PLEASANTVILLE: A Surreal Tribute To The Golden Age Of Television
source: New Line Cinema

David ends up transporting Jennifer and himself into the world of Pleasantville. The cool thing about it is that they are transferred into the exact world of Pleasantville, not just the 1950s as it was. The world they are stuck in is a syrupy sweet one.

Oh, and it’s 100% black and white. Sex is something that is not discussed and a double bed doesn’t exist. Toilets aren’t in existence either, for that matter. Rain is something that is unheard of. Life is literally spent on the sunny side of the street.

The Aftermath

At first, Jennifer is horrified at being stuck in this world. Everybody is bubbly 24/7. David informs her that they have to essentially have to become Bud and Mary Sue – they have to play a part.

Enter George and Betty Parker, David and Jennifer’s “screen parents”. They’re actually the parents of Bud and Mary Sue in the show Pleasantville. George and Betty are portrayed incredibly by William H. Macy and Joan Allen. They’re the image of parents on television shows like Leave It to Beaver: They’re eternally happy and squeaky-clean. Like everyone else in Pleasantville, they are not aware that David and Jennifer are from another dimension. They’re just Bud and Mary Sue.

PLEASANTVILLE: A Surreal Tribute To The Golden Age Of Television
source: New Line Cinema

But Jennifer soon ends up forgetting about her IRL boyfriend when she meets Pleasantville hunk Skip Martin (Paul Walker). On their first date, Jennifer tries to seduce Skip but at first all of her innuendos go right over his head. As they go on seeing each other, however, he begins to learn that her advances are actually welcome and that having “fun” is something that some teenagers do.

A World Changed

With Jennifer’s introduction of sexual awakening and “real-life” thinking, parts of Pleasantville begin to transition into color. This transition into color symbolizes the enlightenment of its citizens. At one point, Jennifer is in geography class when she asks what lies outside of Pleasantville. She is met with quizzical looks.

As far as its citizens know, nothing exists outside of the town. After all, this is television. Do you think the characters in Seinfeld knew that anything existed outside of NYC? Well, besides Los Angeles.

With Jennifer’s wily ways, David warns her that messing with the normalcy and simplicity of Pleasantville could mess up the universe’s timeline and their chance at getting back to their real lives. Even with his advice, Jennifer brushes him off and continues to act how she wants to.

David falls for his new “classmate” Margaret Henderson (Marley Shelton) and introduces new (actually old and classic) literature to his fellow classmates. He begins to feel like he belongs, which is something he was missing in the real world. David also begins to see the citizens of Pleasantville as living human beings, not just two-dimensional characters.

Even Betty learns to embrace the “color” world. Among other things, she learns how to to shed tears.

PLEASANTVILLE: A Surreal Tribute To The Golden Age Of Television
source: New Line Cinema100

Those who cannot embrace the ideas of “the real world” remain in black and white. As more people and landmarks turn to color, the other folks – those who remain in black and white – become increasingly hostile toward them. This group of people is spearheaded by the mayor of Pleasantville. Signs in businesses begin to read “No Coloreds” and buildings that are in color begin to be vandalized.

The colorized people are shamed and ostracized: an obvious reference to the pre-Civil Rights Movement era of the United States. Up until the mid-1960s, seeing “No Coloreds” printed on signs was seen as often as we see McDonald’s signs today. Finally, segregation is eradicated in Pleasantville when the unruly mayor finally turns to color after being confronted by David in the final scene of the film. Pleasantville is freed.

The Moral of the Story

Change doesn’t have to be all that bad. Sure, in some ways it can be. But to progress as a community can be a great thing. (I will note that I write this as a classic entertainment junkie, so naturally I believe that many old fashioned notions should be brought back – not all, but some.) Try to see other points of view, not just your own. Learn from history.

Given that this is from the perspective of two ’90s high school kids, the message is perfect. David learns how to grow up and returns home a mature young man. Jennifer decides to stay in town to finish her education, noting that her “real world” academics don’t look so hot for prospective college offers. To look way below the surface, perhaps this film serves as encouragement for those who seek to time travel: If two teens from 1998 can change for the better by getting sent to 1950s suburbia by Don Knotts, then anything is possible.

A Final Thought

The rest of the cast is wonderful. To name a few members of the supporting cast: Jeff Daniels as the soda shop owner (who plays a really important part in the film), J.T. Walsh as Big Bob the mayor, and Jane Kaczmarek as Daniel and Jennifer’s mom. Kaczmarek is best known for her hilarious portrayal of Lois in the early 2000s sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.

If given the chance, would you embark on an adventure like Danny’s and Jennifer’s? 

Pleasantville is currently available to stream on Netflix. If you’re a fan of 1950s television, fantasy, and comedy, I think you’ll love this movie.

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