Pleasantville was a sitcom of the nineteen-fifties where nothing truly bad ever happened, any upsets were minor and could be easily solved before the half hour episode was finished. It is vintage series such as these that attract teenage David (Tobey Maguire) because they show a simpler way of life that he yearns for, the modern world being something he has yet to get to grips with as it seems a very dark and complicated place indeed. So when this weekend, with his divorced mother away, the TV station that broadcasts Pleasantville announces a marathon of the programme, he is delighted...
Or he is until his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) gets into an argument with him over who gets to hog the TV, as she has her new boyfriend coming round which she has high hopes for - they plan to watch the concert in the front room, and then, who knows what? Jennifer copes with life the way that David does not, but even as she seizes it by the scruff of the neck we can tell that her brittle personality illustrates just as much dissatisfaction as her twin brother does. So begins a film that may not have been the megahit that all involved appeared to be expecting, but has won a place in the hearts of a few who found its offbeat lessons appealing.
It was the directorial debut of writer Gary Ross, a staunch advocate of family entertainment, though as his previous, best known credit for Big indicated, this did not necessarily mean he wished to leave every media outlet sugarcoated and anodyne. Indeed, with Pleasantville there was a lot going on beneath its quaint surface, just as the sitcoms it gently parodied bowed to an idealised way of living that may not have applied to everyone as their reality, never mind what they aspired to. The conceit here was that the entertainment of the fifties had to give way to the more worldly material that advances a more complex society, which might be denying that the planet back then was less complex - not exactly true.
Once the TV repairman (Don Knotts, no stranger to the era under the microscope) shows up to replace David and Jennifer's broken remote control, his special gadget sends them into the land of the TV show, horrifying her but intriguing him. At first David is keen to preserve the place the way they found it, but rebellious Jennifer finds the prospect of this bland existence infuriating and begins the change that will throw the black and white normality into full colour complications, a neat visual style that sees splashes of colour first appear sparingly, then spread to the denizens of the smalltown itself. Along the way everyone has to accept change as perfectly natural, though no less daunting.
You do see this fictional world and think, there were plenty of fifties sitcoms which were nowhere near as personality-free as Pleasantville - what if David's favourite show had been Sgt. Bilko, for example? Yet that is the point, that we see the past as something more stable, more safe, and the present, the future too, as the source of anxiety: it's not as if Ross was saying that this decade was precisely as he depicted it, more that it was how it was idealised, both then and now. So David's new parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) struggle in their own way with the march of time, and the inevitable progress that improves in some ways, gets worse in others, and Jennifer learns from the past in a manner she never would have if she had stayed in the present. This is all so well crafted and acted that it seems a shame to point out that Ross was far too obvious in the way he goes about targeting his progressive themes (signs in shop windows saying "No Coloreds", for example), but Pleasantville was poignant, sincere and generous, if not exactly hilarious for a comedy. Music by Randy Newman.