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Adding Color to Sitcom Life

By Erwin R. Rosinberg

The new movie Pleasantville marks the second time this year that Hollywood has turned its cameras on itself, with interesting and imaginative results. The first, of course, was The Truman Show, which took television to task for diverting our attention from the real world, accusing the medium of (literally) caging the human spirit in a dome of artifice. TV figures prominently in the complex morality of Pleasantville as well, but the movie is anything but just another case of the media being cynical about the effects of the media (which, by the way, we've had quite enough of). Pleasantville has a message about the stock that we take in our lives and actually makes the novel suggestion that revisiting the TV shows we grew up on might be useful in figuring this out.

Pleasantville, the first feature from writer/director Gary Ross, is more rooted in television as Americana than in the scary implications of too much technology. It deals with our nostalgia for '50s-sit-com bliss--which, we all realize, never really existed. It is also a graceful, somewhat fragile story, and, with its playful metaphorical mixing of color and black-and-white, it is a visual treat as well.

This movie aims to be artful entertainment, and so to debate it as a manifesto about the media leads one down the road to nonsense. In his review in New York magazine, Peter Rainer writes that "Maybe people soaked in pop culture are increasingly looking for an all-purpose pop culture explanation for why everything has turned out so lousily. As explanations go, this sort of thing makes a superficial kind of sense, and it's more fun to play around with than Marxism or Freudianism or just about any other ism." Ick. Somebody, please, turn off the critics and pass the popcorn.

In simpler terms, Pleasantville is about two semi-cynical '90s teenagers who get zapped--via the admittedly silly means of a magical TV repairman played by Don Knotts--into a black-and-white '50s TV show called "Pleasantville," reminiscent of Ozzie and Harriet. Once there, the brother and sister try to play along with the "Honey, I'm home!" fakeness of the town, but they can't withhold all of their real world sensibilities. As the ideas they bring with them (art, sex, danger) leak into the town, color starts appearing on roses, on houses and eventually on people. Not knowing what will happen the next day and learning to live with real human emotions are what turn the denizens of Pleasantville into genuine human beings. It's not such an easy moral, though: the introduction of freedom in Pleasantville leads to assorted unpleasantries like book burning and bans against the "colored" people, and seemingly peachy-keen marriages are disrupted. On the flip side, the two teens are also made better by their experience in unreality, impressed by the purity and poignancy of the fictional world they've disturbed.

So there's more going on here than a critique of My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch and the like. The movie starts out with a montage of sounds and images from present-day TV, an unappealing hodgepodge; by contrast, the landscape of Pleasantville, however artificial and hokey, is cute, and at times beautiful. There's a deep affection for the old golly-gee school of American television, even though the film sets out to make the point that reality, however ugly, is better than the monotonous trap of sitcom life. Freedom and color, we learn, are better than Pleasantville's forced cheeriness in various shades of gray.

But then why, the movie asks, does TV nostalgia exert such a powerful appeal? The false "pleasantness" of Pleasantville is completely exposed, but not before the film, quite appropriately, derives a lot of pleasure from bringing us there. One might argue that the movie is only about the shows that our parents watched when they were growing up, which now live on in eternal reruns on Nick at Nite--but then again, The Wonder Years, a show from our own youth, has found a home on that cable station too. The nostalgia factor isn't limited to the '50s, and you don't have to take such shows seriously to recognize that they've staked out a pretty important place in American culture. By embracing the appeal of that nostalgia while exposing its faults, Pleasantville gets deeper into some important cultural issues than its ridiculous premise would seem to allow.

The film suggests that we can indeed learn something from old TV shows. Pleasantville is not so much crying out against television media, as has become the fashion, but rather suggesting we affix a gentle warning label on the myths that it purveys. We can watch stiff sitcom characters in their make-believe worlds and gain the wisdom that it is better, all things considered, to have the element of the unexpected in our lives. Harvard students, take note: the possibility of things not going according to plan is, after all, what keeps us real.

Erwin R. Rosinberg '00 is an English concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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