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Nashville Scene Television Impaired

The TV satire 'Pleasantville' sends out mixed signals.

By Noel Murray

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  Let me make one thing clear: I love TV. My earliest research into pop culture was memorizing the TV Guide Fall Preview issue at age 10, and my critical faculties were honed while watching the new shows. As a latchkey kid, I did my homework to afternoon airings of The Andy Griffith Show, and I grew to love the summer more for syndicated repeats of M*A*S*H* and The Honeymooners than for warm-weather cookouts and bike rides.

As a high-school kid, I was therefore shy, socially awkward, and obsessed with TV trivia--just like David, the teenager Tobey Maguire plays in Gary Ross' Pleasantville. David's favorite hideout is a 1950s show called Pleasantville, a family sitcom in the mold of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. Like many TV Land junkies, David watches Pleasantville not just for nostalgia, but also for reassurance. His beautiful suburban home has been wracked by divorce and the cynicism of his bad-girl twin sister--all of which makes the calm, wooden, familiar rhythms of Pleasantville seem like a cozy blanket on a chilly night.

On the night of a Pleasantville marathon and trivia contest, an argument ensues between Maguire and his sister Jennifer (played by Reese Witherspoon), who wants to watch "the big concert on MTV." In the ensuing tussle, they accidentally smash the remote control. As luck would have it, though, a passing TV repairman (Don Knotts, in a cameo that shows he still has a knack for exasperated line delivery) has a replacement. But when the siblings try it out, they're zapped onto the set of Pleasantville as replacements for the clean-cut kids of the show's idyllic middle-class parents, played by William H. Macy and Joan Allen.

This is your basic high-concept premise, but Gary Ross (making his directorial debut on the heels of popular screenplays for Big and Dave) tries for something a little deeper than a laff-happy gimmick flick. Despite some early pokes at the artificiality of a backlot world--the entire town consists of two streets, there are no toilets in the bathroom--Pleasantville is not exactly comic. Indeed, the movie's first 45 minutes have a sluggish, uncertain vibe, as David and Jennifer learn the rules of their new reality and begin to toy with the carefully ordered lives of their friends and neighbors. The humor is draggy and only intermittently observant, and I found myself wondering: Is Ross going for a surreal effect, or is he just slow-witted?

The fitfulness mostly stems from Ross' ignorance about TV. The details of his makeshift '50s sitcom seem phony from the get-go: The scenes from the actual show are joke-free, charmless, and shot from unlikely cinematic angles. Once "inside" the TV world, the movie is riddled with little inconsistencies, such as the absence of conflict--these comedies did have "situations," after all--and the fact that the TV in Pleasantville tunes in real '50s shows. Judging from the movie, it's unclear if Ross has even seen the shows he's parodying; more likely, his idea of late-'50s television was formed by other satirists' stale jokes about Wally and the Beav.

After the awkward opening, though, Pleasantville takes a different, much better turn. As David and Jennifer begin to share their knowledge of sex and literature, the locals' world is gradually transformed. Parts of the town (and the townspeople) shift from black-and-white to color; the community sees both fire and rain for the first time; and R&B appears on the soundtrack. The tone of the movie becomes fragile and beautiful, and Ross coaxes some wondrous, unforced moments. Chief among these is a lovely drive to Lovers Lane, which the town teens have turned into a color-drenched salon full of reading, discussion, and furtive lust.

There's also an extremely moving moment when an embarrassed Joan Allen, afraid to show her newly toned face in public, has her son apply white pancake makeup so that she can be "normal" for her husband. Even the husband is befuddled by this new world--the disruption of routine leads William H. Macy to mutter, "Where's my dinner?" to his empty house.

All of these scenes concern the thrills and pains of change, and for an audience, this mixed world of black-and-white values with random streaks of wild color is agreeable. At the center of this well-blended reality is the town's soda-shop proprietor, a latent painter played by Jeff Daniels. Daniels' presence in the film pretty much constitutes a walking, talking homage to Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, which covered the same thematic ground with jauntier footsteps.

I say "jauntier," because Pleasantville doesn't stay light and effortless for long. The film takes a terribly wrong turn in its third act, as the mayor of the town (J.T. Walsh, in his final screen performance) turns the chamber of commerce into a fascist organization, determined to shut down art, reading, passion, and anything else "unpleasant." Not only is this a labored plot device, it's inconsistent with the fantasy world Ross has created. We've been shown that anger can cause people to gain "color," but the angry mobs in Pleasantville's streets remain steadfastly black-and-white. This is obviously a cheat.

And an unnecessary one. There's no reason why Pleasantville couldn't have remained a seriocomic examination of the pleasures and dangers of lost innocence. Why not deal with the less melodramatic changes in this world? And isn't it possible that among the new breed of readers and art lovers, there might be some dispute as to the relative merits of their enthusiasms? Rather than fostering totalitarianism, the inevitability of change would more likely sweep some along and leave others behind. Wouldn't it have been more poignant to explore that dichotomy?

Instead, Ross extends a painfully obvious metaphor about conformity that's as witless as the conservative targets he's trying to skewer. He attempts a Gumped-up version of American history, in which the radical changes of the '50s can be summed up in the resistance of a TV town. It's not only facile, it's rather offensive, especially when townspeople start talking about "coloreds." Can the civil-rights struggle be so easily bastardized?

After its ridiculous climax, Pleasantville is almost redeemed by a sublime final shot, which suggests the trickier directions that Ross could've explored, had he developed the remarkable half-hour stretch in the center of his picture. Mostly, though, in skewering the white-bread normalcy of some '50s sitcoms, he forgets the character and, yes, complexity that make those shows popular even today. Albeit simplistic, classic TV appeals because home viewers can both relax in the past and actively search the backgrounds for subtle signs of a changing society--rock 'n' roll music, black faces, or even women wearing Capri pants. Ross may think his paean to change is superior to the medium it's satirizing, but the only real difference is that on television, all crises can be resolved in 30 minutes. In Pleasantville, it takes 124.

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