In Gary Ross’ directorial debut Pleasantville a pair of teenagers, from American suburbia at the turn of the 21st century, are inexplicably transported, by way of a magical remote provided to them by a mysterious repairman into an antiquated TV sitcom. Tobey Maguire plays the socially withdrawn David, who is addicted to the comforting predictability of the “Pleasantville” TV sitcom, while his sister, played by Reese Witherspoon, is the self-indulgent popular girl in her unseen high school social life.
In “Pleasantville,” David and Jennifer become respectively, Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the central teen characters of the program and while Jennifer abhors their situation, David revels in it. For Jennifer, the town of Pleasantville represents blandness. On the surface, the people of Pleasantville are deprived of any of the liberal ideas that are so commonplace in her reality. The local high school boys have absolutely no conception of sex, concepts of geography are limited to Main Street and Elm Street, and the books are all blank.
In effect, the town of Pleasantville represents a sanitized version of 50s suburbia, which as a realization of a television reality, possesses the surface values of the 1950s but without any of its cultural foundations. Pleasantville is a perfect little town, simply because its cultural continuity has never been challenged by anything at all. For David, the town of Pleasantville represents safety. On the surface, it lacks any of the awkward discomforts that come from contemporary living. His Pleasantville mother, Betty Parker, assumes her responsibilities as a housewife perfectly and with astonishing consistency, while Mr.
Johnson is unfamiliar with straying from routine in his duties at manning the diner, so much so that when Bud/David shows up late for work, he ends up polishing the counter till its surface is worn. In effect, the denizens of Pleasantville know nothing more than the scripts that life (and TV) has handed to them and whether or not they have known anything other than these routines in their past is unclear if not a bit irrelevant. The central premise of Pleasantville is in effect, a form of sociological imagination, where broad changes occurring on a societal scale are visualized in terms of individual experience.
Furthermore, it positions the collapse of particular ways of thinking as that which complicates the search for personal meaning. In effect, Pleasantville should not be mistaken as a celebratory parable of the enlightenment of contemporary times versus the repressive safety of the 1950s, never mind the fact that the town of Pleasantville is not really the 1950s but only a television simulacrum of it. Pleasantville makes use of its pseudo-progressive protagonists and its quasi-regressed TV town to unveil the importance of personal meaning in establishing social values.
This concept expressed in its most pure and direct form through the effect that the individual personalities of David/Bud and Jennifer/Mary Sue have upon the town. By introducing the sexually liberated sister and the introspective brother into the town of Pleasantville, the deus ex machine that is the repairman has inadvertently catalyzed the transformation of the town, essentially liberating its residents from black and white homogeneity and embracing the colourful world of desire.
As each individual begins to change and accept a more individually self-constructed notion of desire, they and their surroundings experience this transformation in a most literal sense. Pale gray complexion gives way to healthy pinks, and eye shades begin to encompass the natural spectrum of colors we take for granted in the real world. It is easy to mistake the transition of Pleasantville from monochrome to Technicolor as an expression of the move from regressive 1950s values to the progressive desires of the late 20th century.
This is made most obvious from how color surfaces in those who have experienced sex, but at a telling point in the film, Jennifer asks why she has not experienced the same transition, considering that she’s “had ten times as much sex” as the rest of Pleasantville. Therefore, what transpires in Pleasantville as a result of David and Jennifer’s presence is not mere enlightenment towards progressive values, but change. It’s a specific kind of change, born from the development of autonomy in which people cease to accept the nature of the reality that has been handed to them.
The cultural stasis of Pleasantville, as indicated above, has no cultural foundation and therefore the state of affairs persists from people’s inability to break from routine. For example, Mr. Johnson’s ability to run the diner depends entirely on routine and that includes counting on Bud to bring out the napkins and dress the burgers with lettuce. It is only after Bud teaches him how to do things for himself that he begins to question his responsibilities, and develop desires that were previously nonexistent, such as a longing for Betty Parker and an interest in artistic expression.
Towards the film’s climax, Pleasantville’s mayor, Big Bob, has regarded the colorization of the world and the accompanying cultural changes as a threat. Initially, his wariness comes entirely from a position of benign ignorance: Why would anyone want change in a town that is perfectly pleasant the way it is? But by the film’s end, when David asserts that change is inside everyone in Pleasantville, Big Bob experiences that change by beginning to not just dismiss the value of change, but fear it and he turns an angry pink as a result.
What ultimately occurs in the town of Pleasantville is a breadth of individual changes – a diner clerk’s dissatisfaction with routine existence, a housewife’s desire to learn beyond the domestic duties that have defined her, a husband’s recognition that he values his wife for more than just cooking – that collectively amount to broader changes in society. Pleasantville ultimately communicates the experiential view of social history, in which cultural movement is not a top-down phenomenon, but an emergent one.