Looking back at Pleasantville, 20 years later

This year is the 20th anniversary of Gary Ross’s 1998 fantasy/comedy/drama Pleasantville, so what better time to revisit this classic film?

Our story begins with shy teenager David (Tobey Maguire) and what seems to be his awkward attempt to ask a girl out. We later realize that the girl in question is looking at another guy and this is David’s attempt at asking her out.

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The school year is drawing to a close for both David and his twin sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), which is why we next see a montage of various teachers from their high school basically telling the student body that there’s no chance in hell that great things are in store for them. Given that, it may be understandable why David finds solace in things such as television.

At the same time, the much more social Jennifer manages to get a date with a guy she’s pining for. Her mom is out of town, so they’re set to meet at Jennifer’s house. Of course, this is on the same night that David plans to spend time there watching a marathon of the Leave It to Beaver-esque sitcom Pleasantville. The astonishing part here is that the marathon is part of a trivia contest which awards the winner $1,000. Too bad there aren’t more marathons like these, as they may give shows that were given the axe too soon a chance to find more of an audience.

The two siblings fight over the remote, as Jennifer plans to watch a concert on MTV with her date. Naturally, this little scuffle results in the remote breaking with, apparently, no way to turn the damn set on manually (which is as dumb as the nitroglycerin bomb that can’t be turned off in Hollow Man).

But wouldn’t you know it, a TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up at the door at that very moment. Although startled, the siblings welcome his help. The repairman’s ears perk up when David reveals his plans to watch the Pleasantville marathon. He asks David a few trivia questions about the show, and is happy when David answers them correctly.

The repairman takes out a bizarre-looking remote and says that it’ll “put you right in the show”. After departing, David turns the marathon on, which (what a surprise!) prompts Jennifer to try to wrestle the remote from him. At the same time, the two Pleasantville siblings Bud (Kevin Connors) and Mary Sue (Natalie Ramsey) Parker are seen fighting over a radio.

David and Jennifer are then sucked into the TV and take their places in the Parker living room, now in black and white and wearing the same clothes. The Parker patriarch George (William H. Macy) walks by, telling them to hurry up or they’ll be late for school.

The repairman addresses David and Jennifer via the Parkers’ TV and tells them that they are indeed in Pleasantville. He commends David on his knowledge of the show, saying that most people only know info about the show’s early years (which could actually be said for a number of long-running shows, when you think about it).

Jennifer is naturally pissed off because she still has that date, and the repairman doesn’t improve her mood when he shows her said date walking away from her house and calling her a bitch when nobody answers the door.

David begins imploring the repairman to send them back, but he darts off thinking David is being ungrateful. He adds that he’ll get back to them in a couple of weeks.

The twins are called to breakfast by Bud and Mary Sue’s mom Betty (Joan Allen), and she has a mountain of pancakes ready for them. Jennifer’s claims that she’s not hungry are met with laughter by her “parents”.

As they walk to school, David is astonished and Jennifer is disgusted by the wholesomeness that now surrounds them. He implores her to just play along until the repairman returns. Her mood lightens when she sees Skip Martin (Paul Walker), the captain of the school’s basketball team, the Pleasantville Lions.

At school, David quickly fills Jennifer in on the girls that Mary Sue hangs out with. In geography class, everyone gives Jennifer a WTF? look when she asks what’s outside of Pleasantville.

David is seen practicing basketball, with everyone, including him, always getting the ball into the basket. Skip asks David if he can ask his sister out. David recognizes this as a plot point from an episode and politely tells Skip that this is a bad idea. Skip is heartbroken, which causes him to actually miss the basket when he tosses up his ball in anguish. The coach and the other players also give a WTF? look as the coach tells them to stay clear of the ball, as if it were a live wire.

This leads David into begging Jennifer to go out with Skip so as not to really fuck things up, including their chances of getting home. Jennifer is skeptical though, and informs her brother that the books in the library are all blank, and that the firemen earn their checks by just getting cats out of trees, because nothing burns in this town. On top of this, Mary Sue’s friends come to her all giggly at the prospect of her dating Skip.

Jennifer dresses for her date, while David goes to Bud’s job at the soda shop. He apologizes for his tardiness to his boss Bill (Jeff Daniels), who says that he just kept wiping the counter when Bud didn’t arrive on time to cook the french fries and what-not.

Among the customers that begin to arrive are Skip and Jennifer. She annoys David by ordering “a salad with Evian water.”

Jennifer goes to the bathroom, but alas, this place has no toilets either (I trust her breakfast went down easily then). Mary Sue’s girlfriends burst in asking how things are going, with one of them thinking Skip will take her to Lover’s Lane. This leads to Jennifer basically dragging Skip out of the shop so he can take her there. David goes apeshit and flings himself over the counter begging Jennifer not to do what he knows she’s going to do.

Sure enough, at Lover’s Lane, Jennifer wastes no time getting into Skip’s pants.

David rushes home, but his “dad” George tells him that Mary Sue is getting older and she wouldn’t do anything rash (cue sitcom laughter). David/Bud’s boss Bill later arrives, saying that David’s early departure from work prompted him to do all the closing duties himself. David also notices that Bill and his “mom” Betty are making eyes at each other.

Jennifer returns, with David pissed off at her. She promptly tells him to piss off as she goes to bed. But that doesn’t stop him from reading her the riot act the next day, as her dalliance has led to the basketball team now sucking. Also, it seems that flowers and bubble gum are now being colorized. David says that Pleasantville is getting disrupted, but Jennifer says that it needs that kind of change, and even adds that she’s mortified by her brother because of how much he likes the way it was.

Soon, as David keeps searching the TV night after night for the repairman, other people are going through similar changes. Jennifer even gives her “mom” a little info about sex at one point.  And Lover’s Lane begins to live up to its name more and more.

Eventually, David becomes smitten with a local girl named Margaret (Marley Shelton). This may explain why, when the repairman does get in touch with him again, David tells him to piss off, even though the repairman insists he can give him a remote that can return things to the way there once were (you’d think Barney Fife would’ve thought this through a bit more before sending two kids to a strange new place against their will).

As the town literally becomes more colorful, some of the townspeople, led by mayor Big Bob (J.T. Walsh) attempt to stop the changes to not just their town, but to their wives and children, who are now becoming more independent.

Indeed, Betty eventually leaves George for Bill, who has himself become disenchanted with working at the soda shop every day, and he becomes an artist. He even paints a nude portrait of Betty on the window of the soda fountain.

Riots eventually erupt as people who are now “colored” are being harassed. A trial soon takes place, with David and Bill’s defense of their actions causing the mayor to no longer be black and white himself.

With everyone now becoming more accustomed to the new look of everything, Jennifer’s newfound love for reading has somehow prompted her to stay in Pleasantville to finish her education. David, on the other hand, decides to return home, although he promises Jennifer, Margaret, and Betty that he’ll return. After bidding all three of them farewell (with Margaret and Betty taking the news that he used a remote to travel into a fictional universe surprisingly well), David returns home. He finds that only an hour has passed since he and Jennifer left, but his mom (Jane Kaczmarek) is in the kitchen crying her eyes out, believing that her life is far from what she thinks it should be. But he assures her that it doesn’t have to be anything specific.

The dramatic turn the film takes is certainly admirable, with the undertones of repression making it unique. The cast is terrific, with Knotts the perfect choice as the repairman who sets the story into motion. Appropriately, the film was dedicated to J.T. Walsh, who died shortly after filming.

This film was praised by critics and quickly developed a cult following, although it didn’t do well upon its initial release. Perhaps this was because the trailer seemed to give off a comedic, satirical vibe much like the following year’s Galaxy Quest, which proved to be a smash at the box office. However, the dramatic turns of Pleasantville likely caught audiences off guard, which may be why it didn’t rake in the cash like other films of 1998, including the great Saving Private Ryan and the headache-inducing Armageddon.

My only question is, what will David tell his mom when she asks about Jennifer? Somehow, I doubt “Mr. Furley gave us this bogus remote that zapped us into the show Pleasantville. One thing led to another and Jennifer decided to stay there” is going to cut it.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author of suspense novels, including the new thriller Past the Breaking Point, available now from Amazon.

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  • Greenhornet

    Here are some problems with Pleasantville: The books are blank. What happens when someone reads out loud from a book? There’s nothing outside of Pleasantville. What if the basketball team has to play a team from another town? What happens when they play an “away game”? What was the coach’s reasoning when the team is not allowed to touch the ball when the player misses the shot? Player superstition? The show’s character’s seem to know (From your description) that something is wrong as if they are somewhat aware that their reality is just fiction and there’s a script that has to be followed.

    I dismissed tis movie and don’t regret it. Having lived in the 1960’s where the idea that everything older than a single generation is retarded and worthless was born, I recognized this in the trailers for Pleasantville and avoided it. The idea that “old stuff” is “campy” to the point of idiocy lives on in the movie versions of popular TV shows from the sixties and seventies. This is not something new, but one gets the feeling that movie-makers want to show how “modern” and “sophisticated” they are by making fun of “old fashioned stuff”.

    I get pissed off and even saddened by old movies and TV shows that could have been revitalized for new audiences, but are instead mocked to the tune of millions of dollars in lost investment. Where’s the point of that, Hollywood?

    • Schwanwald

      Greenhornet wrote: “Here are some problems with Pleasantville: The books are blank. What happens when (…)”

      You have apparently never read a fairy tale?? The movie is a parable about the Garden of Eden and free will. How people can not pick up on that is beyond me! The racism/discrimination subplot of the “colored people” of Pleasantville in the second part is *not* the sole plot, or even the most important plot, it is a natural outcome of the main plot. I’m sorry, but Rob Kirchgassner wrote a lackluster recap, not even a review. His recap skipped entire important scenes and left out a huge amount of plot points.

      In short: The old TV Repairman is God. Pleasantville is his attempt at creating a Garden of Eden; a place where no death exist, no strife (no war or divorce), nothing harmful (like fire that can kill and destroy), a place of perfect innocence (hence why sex does not exist either, and neither do double beds).

      The town of Pleasantville is a self-contained reality that the Repairman created for his own pleasure, a recreation of a 1950s “ideal world” cliché where he can retreat to, and he peopled it with human puppets that follow a script with no agency of their own. Allowing elements from the outside reality to enter would bring change, and in a state of perfect harmony all change could only be negative in his eyes. Which is why his beloved puppets go through the same motions, “reruns” of the same “episodes” over and over again. The Repairman picks David as a worthy person to enter His garden, because he sees in David someone who knows all the minutia of the Pleasantville show and yearns for the same state of peace.

      But the Repairman’s attempt to control and enforce a Status Quo on society and even on his pocket reality leads to an utterly static world. A town where the main street is a big circle, and the question “But what is outside of Pleasantville?” is met with puzzlement (a similar leitmotif can be found in ‘Dark City’ and ‘The Truman Show’). A world where all books are empty, because the Tree of Knowledge bears dangerous fruit. A world before the Fall, where humans neither die nor are born in blood and pain. A world where the lion lies down with the lamb. But the fact is that the people in Pleasantville are childlike in their innocence, until David and Jennifer start telling them about how things could be different. The books they touch in the library suddenly contain stories of far-away places, like Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’ (because David the book nerd knows that novel by heart), and pictures in color, like the illustrated book of famous art that leads to Bill from the diner taking up painting and later being persecuted for “perverse activities” (drawing in colors forbidden by the town commitee). Paintings that lead to Betty falling in love with Bill.

      The recap left out so many important scenes: The importance of the scene of Bill scrubbing the counter like a robot until all the varnish is gone because “Bud” (David) wasn’t there, until David tells him he could go “off-script” and decide to do things by himself, which brings immesurable relief to Bill. The beautiful apple in the garden scene, when Margaret hands an apple to David, bright red against the grey landscape. The thunderstorm and rain (another thing that did not exist before in Pleasantville) at the garden at night where the young people gathered, the lightning strike, and the rainbow (another Biblical symbolism) that blazes in the sky over the grey town the next morning. The fact that fire that burns did not exist in the world until a tree bursts into flame outside the house when Betty masturbates. Betty’s husband George ordering her to cover up her “coloredness” with grey make-up lest the neighbors see, and later Bill wiping the make-up off after he saw Betty cry. The scene at the court house, and the Mayor’s entire enraged rant about his fear of “disruptive elements” that in his eyes will lead to chaos and ruin.

      Another recurring theme is that it’s the women (Jennifer, Margaret, Betty) who are “disruptive”, while the men (David, George, the Mayor) are conformist, because the Status Quo favors them. It is the girl Margaret who defies the script because she decides to bake cookies for David/Bud instead of the boy she is supposed to give them to, and it is she (who by then is already in color) who hands David (who is still in black-and-white) the apple.

      The religious themes in Pleasantville are not conservative, but technically heretic. Pleasantville is an allegory for the Garden of Eden, but there is no evil snake, no blame of Original Sin, no fall from grace and eternal punishment, and the story implies that “God” is not beyond questioning. It picks up the Humanist philosophical idea that humans had to leave the state of childhood (symbolised by being naked in the garden) behind to gain free will and self-determination. In the end the Repairman (who initially was furious at David and Jennifer for disrupting his little world) accepts that Pleasantville has evolved and cannot be returned to the Status Quo Ante; he announces there will be new episodes in the future. Pleasantville gains a new bus stop that leads to the Big City. David comes out changed as well, although his character development is more subtle than his sister’s; he has found the determination to face the real world where the future is not predetermined.

      The ‘Matrix Reloaded’ movie contained a similar theme: When the Architect tells Neo about previous iterations of the Matrix, he says his first design was a virtual world of perfect order, where everything that happened was predetermined in a “Maxwell’s Demon” kind of way (and reminiscent of the Christian theological concept of Predeterminism). He thought the humans would appreciate his “perfect world” he created. But the people trapped inside went insane.

      Greenhornet wrote: “I dismissed tis movie and don’t regret it.”
      Well, congratulation on acting like an arrogant twat. You seem to be quite proud of it.

      Greenhornet wrote “Having lived in the 1960’s where the idea that everything older than a single generation is retarded and worthless was born, I recognized this in the trailers for Pleasantville and avoided it. The idea that “old stuff” is “campy” to the point of idiocy lives on in the movie versions of popular TV shows from the sixties and seventies. This is not something new, but one gets the feeling that movie-makers want to show how “modern” and “sophisticated” they are by making fun of “old fashioned stuff”.”

      What? Where the hell do you get that from? You mentioned you only saw a trailer (which even the recap mentions was made in a way that was completely misleading) and instantly constructed in your head a prejudiced fantasy of what you think the movie is about, when it’s absolutely not about that. But hey, go on, project your own childhood nostalgia and resentment.

    • PhysUnknown

      I feel like you missed the point. It’s not that the “old stuff is campy/stupid”; it’s more a reaction to the opposite of this statement, that the “old stuff” is superior to modern day. It questions the idealism that there was this time in our past that was “perfect” and that if we could just get back to it, we could be perfect again. However, our memories are clouded either by the passage of time, or simply not having been there, and when we go back to that era (as Bud and Jennifer do), we discover that perfection is not just a boring way to go through life, but also a lie.

      I do like the fact that you haven’t seen it, but bring up problems with it. How about giving it a watch, then forming an opinion? Maybe some of your questions are answered in the movie? Crazy, I know.

      • Greenhornet

        I have seen part of it (After they entered the TV show) and my opinion hasn’t changed. I’ve seen movies LIKE it and the snobbery shines through. That’s what I object to. I thought the remakes of The Little Rascals and Leave It to Beaver would be crap, but I was surprised that they were well done, so such movies CAN be done well wile respecting the source material. You may be right, I might give it a chance.

        Some things are discussed so often and examples are put out that one CAN form an opinion with only a passing knowledge of the subject. (Maybe you’ve seen my take/re-boot of adm Holdo in The Last Jedi?) It’s not the MOVIE itself I object to, but rather the tone and style.

        Also, I really would like to know if those “what ifs” I brought up were explained in the movie, by the film makers, or anyone who saw the movie.

        • Mort Brewster

          The only things that exist in Pleasantville when Tobey and Reese get there are the things that happened on or were used in the show. If there had been an episode when someone read a book, that book would have had words in it. No one would pick up and read a blank book because no one did such a thing on the show. Until the twins get there, everyone’s entire world is the world of the show. They wouldn’t even understand the concept of being fictional characters. Once the kids change things, the rest of the world does begin to appear (the color, words in books, fire, etc).

          In my opinion, the movie succeeds as a story about a group of people without considering the allegorical aspect s (which were not too hit-you-over-the-head).

  • I like it. It is not about any one thing. But the message that reveling in the BS non-reality of the wholesome, “when I was your age everything was great” Is a pointless and is challenging way to look at the world.

    You don’t grow by watching the bland black and white, you grow as a person by seeing the color.