Pleasantville vs. The Truman Show

It seems that Pleasantville was a Republican suburb until two proselyte Democrats came to town.

Well, isn’t this just swell?! Two nostalgic TV-wasteland pictures in one year. The first out of the starting box was of course The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir. Peter was responsible for the very fine Dead Poets Society and Witness (which set the stage for all future good-cop-hiding-in-Amish-community-from-corrupt-legal-system plot lines). Truman was written by Andrew Niccol who also wrote Gattaca, the sleeper sci-fi superb of this year.

Pleasantville was written, directed and produced by one Gary Ross. Mr. Ross did similar biathlon theatrics with Dave and Big, both writing and producing.

Broad Similarities

  1. people trapped in TV land
  2. God-complex characters
  3. humanitarian and/or philosophical themes

Both Truman and Pleasantville are very similar in theme. Innocent and not-so-innocent people become trapped inside the picturesque towns of television. The former doesn’t know it, while the latter are trying to get out of it. By the way, you can forget about implausibilities; both films are escapist which is forgivable. The genre is part fantasy, part comedy.


Pleasantville (September 17, 1998)

Release Date: September 17, 1998
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen
Genres: Fantasy, Drama, Comedy
Runtime: 124 min
Original Title: Pleasantville
Original Film Language: English
Production Companies: New Line Cinema, Larger Than Life Productions, Juno Pix
Geeky teenager David and his popular twin sister, Jennifer, get sucked into the black-and-white world of a 1950s TV sitcom called "Pleasantville," and find a world where everything is peachy keen all the time. But when Jennifer's modern attitude disrupts Pleasantville's peaceful but boring routine, she literally brings color into its life.

Cast Pleasantville

  • Tobey Maguire
  • Role: David
  • Reese Witherspoon
  • Role: Jennifer
  • William H. Macy
  • Role: George Parker
  • Joan Allen
  • Role: Betty Parker
  • Jeff Daniels
  • Role: Bill Johnson
  • J.T. Walsh
  • Role: Big Bob
  • Don Knotts
  • Role: TV Repairman
  • Marley Shelton
  • Role: Margaret Henderson
  • Jane Kaczmarek
  • Role: David's Mother
  • Giuseppe Andrews
  • Role: Howard
  • Jenny Lewis
  • Role: Christin
  • Marissa Ribisi
  • Role: Kimmy
  • Denise Dowse
  • Role: Health Teacher
  • McNally Sagal
  • Role: Science Teacher
  • Paul Morgan Stetler
  • Role: College Counselor
  • Kevin Connors
  • Role: Bud Parker
  • Natalie Ramsey
  • Role: Mary Sue Parker
  • Justin Nimmo
  • Role: Mark Davis
  • Kai Lennox
  • Role: Mark's Lackey #1
  • Jason Behr
  • Role: Mark's Lackey #2
  • Harry Singleton
  • Role: Mr. Simpson
  • John Ganun
  • Role: Fireman #1
  • Paul Walker
  • Role: Skip Martin
  • Dawn Cody
  • Role: Betty Jean
  • Maggie Lawson
  • Role: Lisa Anne
  • Andrea Baker
  • Role: Peggy Jane
  • Lela Ivey
  • Role: Miss Peters
  • Marc Blucas
  • Role: Basketball Hero
  • Danny Strong
  • Role: Juke Box Boy

Trailer Pleasantville

Interestingly, both films have their respective God-like characters that control the events of each story. In Pleasantville, a mysterious TV Repairman first introduces our two heroes to this black-and-white town. Meanwhile, the TV Producer Christof in Truman commands the environment around the solitary hero stuck unknowingly in the make believe world that is the Truman Show.

While Truman leaves us with a reaffirming sense of the human condition, Pleasantville serves to smash traditional conventions and conservative ideals. You might have to look for the differences; they’re subtle.

Subtle Differences

  1. Truman – celebration of the human spirit, while satirizing media manipulation
  2. Pleasantville – clash of worldviews, as 50’s family values meets 90’s liberal ideology


The Truman Show (June 4, 1998)

Release Date: June 4, 1998
Starring: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone
Genres: Comedy, Drama
Runtime: 103 min
Original Title: The Truman Show
Original Film Language: English
Production Companies: Paramount
Truman Burbank is the star of "The Truman Show", a 24-hour-a-day "reality" TV show that broadcasts every aspect of his life -- live and in color -- without his knowledge. His entire life has been an unending soap opera for consumption by the rest of the world. And everyone he knows -- including his wife and his best friend -- is really an actor, paid to be part of his life.

Cast The Truman Show

  • Jim Carrey
  • Role: Truman Burbank
  • Laura Linney
  • Role: Meryl Burbank / Hannah Gill
  • Noah Emmerich
  • Role: Marlon / Louis Coltrane
  • Natascha McElhone
  • Role: Lauren / Sylvia Garland
  • Holland Taylor
  • Role: Alanis Montclair / Angela Burbank
  • Ed Harris
  • Role: Christof
  • Brian Delate
  • Role: Walter Moore / Kirk Burbank
  • Paul Giamatti
  • Role: Simeon
  • Peter Krause
  • Role: Laurence
  • Blair Slater
  • Role: Young Truman
  • Heidi Schanz
  • Role: Vivien
  • Ron Taylor
  • Role: Ron
  • Don Taylor
  • Role: Don
  • Ted Raymond
  • Role: Spencer
  • O-Lan Jones
  • Role: Bar Waitress
  • Krista Lynn Landolfi
  • Role: Bar Waitress
  • Harry Shearer
  • Role: Mike Michaelson
  • Jeanette Miller
  • Role: Senior Citizen
  • Philip Glass
  • Role: Keyboard Artist
  • Una Damon
  • Role: Chloe
  • Joe Minjares
  • Role: Bartender
  • Philip Baker Hall
  • Role: Network Executive
  • John Pleshette
  • Role: Network Executive
  • Terry Camilleri
  • Role: Man in Bathtub
  • Joel McKinnon Miller
  • Role: Garage Attendant
  • Judy Clayton
  • Role: Travel Agent
  • Fritz Dominique
  • Role: Truman's Neighbor
  • Angel Schmiedt
  • Role: Truman's Neighbor
  • Nastassja Schmiedt
  • Role: Truman's Neighbor
  • Muriel Moore
  • Role: Teacher
  • Mal Jones
  • Role: News Vendor
  • Judson Vaughn
  • Role: Insurance Co-Worker
  • Earl Hilliard Jr.
  • Role: Ferry Worker
  • David Andrew Nash
  • Role: Bus Driver / Ferry Captain
  • Jim Towers
  • Role: Bus Supervisor
  • Savannah Swafford
  • Role: Little Girl in Bus
  • Antoni Corone
  • Role: Security Guard
  • Mario Ernesto Sánchez
  • Role: Security Guard
  • John Roselius
  • Role: Man at Beach
  • Kade Coates
  • Role: Truman (4 years)
  • Marcia DeBonis
  • Role: Nurse
  • Sam Kitchin
  • Role: Surgeon
  • Sebastian Youngblood
  • Role: Orderly
  • Dave Corey
  • Role: Hospital Security Guard
  • Mark Alan Gillott
  • Role: Policeman at Power Plant
  • Jay Saiter
  • Role: Policeman at Truman's House
  • Tony Todd
  • Role: Policeman at Truman's House
  • Marco Rubeo
  • Role: Man in Christmas Box
  • Daryl Davis
  • Role: Couple at Picnic Table
  • Robert Davis
  • Role: Couple at Picnic Table
  • R.J. Murdock
  • Role: Production Assistant
  • Matthew McDonough
  • Role: Man at Newsstand
  • Larry McDowell
  • Role: Man at Newsstand
  • Joseph Lucus
  • Role: Ticket Taker
  • Logan Kirksey
  • Role: TV Host
  • Adam Tomei
  • Role: Control Room Director
  • John Pramik
  • Role: Keyboard Artist
  • Al Foster
  • Role: Bar Patron
  • Zoaunne LeRoy
  • Role: Bar Patron
  • Millie Slavin
  • Role: Bar Patron
  • Dona Hardy
  • Role: Senior Citizen
  • Tom Simmons
  • Role: Garage Attendant
  • Susan Angelo
  • Role: Mother
  • Carly Smiga
  • Role: Daughter
  • Yuji Okumoto
  • Role: Japanese Family
  • Kiyoko Yamaguchi
  • Role: Japanese Family
  • Saemi Nakamura
  • Role: Japanese Family

Trailer The Truman Show

The real qualitative difference in the two movies is the moral. The moral of Truman is this: “You can’t cage the human spirit.” Any attempt to control it and pipe it onto television for the consuming masses to digest like the grandest soap opera of all time will fail. Pleasantville‘s moral is slightly different: “You don’t have the right to inhibit human happiness.” Any attempt to stifle the personal gratifications of citizens trapped in a mundane life is ultimately close-minded and bigoted.

The focus is starkly different too. In Truman, we (the theatre) are focused entirely on one man, participants with the watchers of the TV show in the film. So in that sense, we too are guilty of entrapping this man in our selfish insatiable desire for entertainment. In essence, the focus is from the inside out, as the selfless sincerity of the one man spreads outward, liberating us all. With Pleasantville, the opposite is true with the focus ending on each individual. We watch the brother-and-sister duo “liberate” the citizens of Pleasantville with the notion that their way of life is choking their creativity.

J.T. Walsh’s character Big Bob, who is obviously the antagonist of the film, represents the moral opposition to all this change. In the safe haven of the local bowling alley, he assures his comrades, “This is a matter of values… It’s about protecting what made this town great.” It seems that Pleasantville was apparently a Republican suburb until our two proselyte Democrats came to town.

The before-and-after scenes are quite stark. Before the cultural saviors (David, aka Bud, and Jennifer, aka Mary Sue) arrive, the citizens in Pleasantville are mindless, lacking any originality or independent thought. Introduced to any change in the routine, however, results in some strange happenings. Mr. Johnson, the soda shop owner, wipes the veneer off the bar counter, waiting for Bud to arrive late to work. Mary Sue introduces her Pleasantville mother to sex. And of course the mother’s experimentation “liberates” her from her fidelity to her husband.

With this liberation comes pigmentation. Up until now, the entire town is black and white, including the townsfolk. Soon, the town becomes divided, with those that have color (enlightenment) and those without. Those without (the moral majority) have isolated the “coloreds” into the soda shop, ridiculing them with the hatred of an unruly mob. They destroy the painter’s art and burn the readers’ books. Big Bob then congregates the citizens in the town hall to discuss what to do with the coloreds. “The way I see it, to make this town pleasant again we need to remove what is unpleasant.” It’s conservatism represented as fascism.

Pleasantville‘s attack isn’t so much on the lifestyle of the 50’s. It’s more an assault on moderate behavior. Constancy is viewed as a vice, traditional values as travesty. Point number eight in the “Code of Conduct” drafted by the townspeople read, “The high school curriculum shall consist of an unchanging view of history, emphasizing continuity over alteration.” This certainly sounds close-minded, doesn’t it? At least we’re made to think so.

Despite being offended by Pleasantville, I was nevertheless entertained. Overall, the two films were both highly watchable. I found myself utterly intrigued by both story lines. Both were very, very well written and highly entertaining. Put to a contest however, I was ultimately more satisfied with Truman. As Pleasantville stooped to 90’s pop-morality revisionism, Truman was bold with its reinforcing view of the future.

2 Replies to “Pleasantville vs. The Truman Show”

  1. hmm. pleasantville is one of my favorite movies. we had to watch it in one of my grad school classes and analyze it for postmodern theory.

    i can appreciate your review and interpretation- really, i can. for sure i can accept the idea that pleasantville can be interpreted as a criticism of traditional values.

    in addition, though, what i like about the film is that it also defies maintaining tradition just for tradition’s sake. it allows for multiple perspectives and complex existence. one “right” way does not have to prevail.

    with six years distance do you still feel the same way about it as you did in this review?

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