Friday, October 23rd, 1998

Sam Neill has been trapped by MCI Worldcom in a featureless gray room. The only way out, and the only color pouring in, seems to be through some sort of fancy Ethernet connection (one that MCI would be happy to hook you into.) He peers out, smug, confident; his face warmed by the rainbow of the outside world. Moments later, a guy who I almost recognize is marching around on enormous monochromatic teeth talking about the salubrious effects of Listerine, and a spectacular bottle of bondi-blue mouthwash is the only color in the scene. And then we’re treated to the gray-ghostly corridors of the Georgia Capitol, as a gravelly voice tells us that Mark Taylor is somehow more respectable than Mitch Skandalakis. He must be: Taylor’s the one in color.

Welcome to Pleasantville. Welcome to how television talks to us these days. It has become an accepted, almost mundane component of television commercials, part of the learned vocabulary: buy our product, live a more colorful life in a vivid, spectral world. From TV’s earliest days, when "brought to you in living color" signified extra effort and expense to keep you ("the home viewer") entertained, through the early 80s, when MTV rediscovered black-and-white and pronounced it "art," television’s practitioners have been controlling your horizontal, controlling your vertical, but mostly, controlling your mind through the judicious manipulation of color.

Maybe I’m especially aware of this as autumn creeps down from the mountains, pumping up and then draining our surroundings of hues, but color can carry its own message.

The somewhat clever conceit of the new movie "Pleasantville" is that the black-and-white world of 50s sitcoms represents a sort of bottled, remembered, wafer-thin perfection, a virginal state of pre-discovery that we can guarantee won’t stay that way once the characters take a bite out of a very red apple. And just as television stepped past "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" into the day-glo shades of "Batman" and "Laugh-In," it discarded set-piece innocence, picked up and then set aside sixties and seventies idealism, and broke a taboo or two along the way. The pastel shades of the 80s (in stereo, where available) yielded to street-edgy 90s color shot with a shaky camera-hand, and we find ourselves, well, here at century’s end.

Now advertisers, designers, and television producers have a full palette to work with. Go ahead, we’ve told them, supersaturate the picture or drain it of chroma completely—it’s your choice. They can tell stories with the dated sensabilities of "Touched by an Angel," or they can paste together bright ripped hunks of colorful construction paper into something grotesquely funny like "South Park." The limits are off. The choices are myriad. Censorship is a thing of the past. There shouldn’t be any excuse for mediocrity, right?

Well, that’s the problem with comfortable theories.

Even armed with all of the above, I can’t even begin to explain some of the stuff that’s passing for television. Not even here—on the printed page, in glorious, unsmudged black-and-white.