One of the greatest joys of watching Marvel’s WandaVision was the way it wholeheartedly paid homage to classic TV sitcoms of the 20th century. The Disney+ series’ first two episodes aired almost entirely in black and white. Its central characters all happily assumed the archetypal roles commonly seen in shows like Bewitched and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Even as WandaVision moved into color territory and revealed the tragic origins of its sitcom homages, the show’s old-fashioned imitations never lost any of their collective charms. But despite the unique way that WandaVision tied its sitcom trappings into its greater MCU story, the series was far from the first major film or TV series to imagine what it’d be like to live in the world of an old 1950s sitcom.
In fact, one 1998 film pays homage to the TV comedies of the past much like WandaVision did: Pleasantville. While it almost certainly served as an inspiration point for the Marvel series, its strengths extend far beyond its impact on WandaVision.
Pleasantville, now streaming on HBO Max, remains one of the more unique sci-fi comedies of the past thirty years. Here’s why you need to add it to your watchlist.
Have you ever wondered what it’d be like to live inside the world of your favorite TV show? Well, Gary Ross certainly has.
The writer-director known for films like Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games took that very question and used it as the basis of Pleasantville. The film, which is arguably Ross’ best to date, follows a brother and sister who find themselves sucked into the world of the former’s favorite 1950s sitcom. Once inside, the siblings are forced to play the show’s lead roles, but it doesn’t take long for their modern-day sensibilities to start turning the series’ black and white world to color — literally.
Building off the film’s inherently zany and fun premise, Ross and cinematographer John Lindley shot portions of the film in both black and white and color. The duo doesn’t keep the two color schemes separate either. Instead, Ross and his collaborators inject color into the film’s monochromatic fictional show and even go so far as to have an increasing number of the film’s actors turn to color all. At the same time, the world and everyone around them remains in black and white.
It’s a delightful visual decision, and it makes the second half of the film pop in a way that it might not have had Ross and his collaborators chosen to keep Pleasantville a black and white world.
Pleasantville is further elevated by the pitch-perfect performances of its cast members, all of whom easily rise to meet its comedic and dramatic demands. Reese Witherspoon, in particular, shines as Jennifer, one half of the film’s central sibling pair, who almost single-handedly turns the entire world of Pleasantville upside down with her confidence and unwaveringly modern attitude.
Elsewhere, Joan Allen and Jeff Daniels both turn in predictably great performances as two of the sitcom’s older residents, who find themselves opened up to pleasures and experiences that had been kept from them. In fact, it’s the arcs of Daniels’ and Allen’s characters from repressed to sexually and passionately free that lend real impact to many of the film’s themes about societal and political oppression.
Similar to Blue Velvet or The Truman Show, Pleasantville turns its attention and critiques on the stereotypical, white picket fence lifestyle synonymous with 1950s American society — and uses the iconography from that era to expose the repression and darkness lying underneath its sunny exterior. As a result, Pleasantville manages to imbue the seemingly idyllic ‘50s sitcom setting at its center with an unnerving, dystopian mood that’s hard to shake.
The film itself is a unique, outrageous sci-fi comedy unlike any that you’ve seen before. Even with recent shows like WandaVision rehashing many of its tricks and themes, it feels just as singular today as it did back in 1998.
Pleasantville is available to stream now on HBO Max.