Paul Simon’s greatest lie: “Everything looks worse in black and white”
Paul Simon lied when he sang: “everything looks worse in black and white.” Certain TV shows only look right in black and white — color TV ruined (or at least hurt) them.
We see the black and white film and instantly “know” the portrait we’re watching is designed to evoke the past, another time, another classic, timeless way to eternal truths and answers.
Just a decade ago, French producers created “The Artist,” a black and white silent film telling a timeless story about economic transformation (the 1927 to 1932 move from silent films to talkies) rocking the worlds of all involved.
“The Artist” easily won all the top awards (including the Academy Award for Best Picture), an instant classic like the previous black and white Best Picture winners (“Schindler’s List” in 1993 and “The Apartment” in 1960).
“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”― Ted Grant.
Born for B/W: It all starts in Mayberry
Exhibit A: “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960–68) is classic, enduring, and everlasting in black and white. When they shifted to color in Season 6, everything got worse: Mayberry, the cast, the stories, and situations.
Picture Mayberry in color, and you instantly think, “yuck, not as good as it used to be.”
- Goober Pyle was no Gomer Pyle.
- Howard Sprague and Emmett’s Fix-It Shop were sub-par junk vendors compared to the beloved Floyd’s Barbershop they replaced.
- Helen Crump couldn’t compare with Andy’s lovely exes, and adolescent Opie was not nearly as endearing as young Opie.
- Most importantly, after the first five great seasons filmed in black and white, no one could dare even try to replace Barney Fife, who left for Raleigh before the color TV wave engulfed the town.
Coloring a perfect black snd white picture can’t improve it. You know something is wrong as soon as you see the soft color imagery replacing the stunning contrasts of classic black and white.
That was the turning point.
“No person is completely wicked, just as no person is perfect. We are all grey.” ― Sweety Shinde
Lucy and “The Honeymooners”
“I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” remain the gold standard for golden age classic situation comedy.
Both were so popular that Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason remained on television (milking the same characters) for decades, decades after their original shows aired.
“I Love Lucy” (1951–1957) is considered the very best of its genre. It was succeeded by the “Lucy/Desi Hour” (1957–1960), then Lucy and Desi divorced. But Lucy carried on with more comedies: “The Lucy Show” (1962–1968) and “Here’s Lucy” (1968–1974). She even tried to come back in 1986 with “Life With Lucy,” which was canceled after 13 episodes.
All of the above shows were basically the same character. But the shocking red hair looked more like clown hair in color, and Lucy never had the same power and influence she enjoyed in glorious black and white.
Jackie Gleason, similarly, kept his Ralph Kramden character (the inspiration for Fred Flintstone) going for years on: “Cavalcade of Stars” (1950–1952), “The Jackie Gleason Show” (1952 to 1955), “The Honeymooners” (1955 to 1956) and then through a series of revivals on variety show skits that ran periodically until as late as 1978.
But Ralph Kramden in color TV was just an echo of the real memory, the black and white dream.
“The Adventures of Superman”
“The Adventures of Superman” (1952–58), one of the first shows to move from black and white to color filming, was the first to be hurt by the change.
Critics nearly universally agree the first black and white seasons were more serious and deep than the color seasons that followed. Many agree that the change helped transform the sci-fi into silly, the crime-fighting into a children’s show.
“Sometimes you think, 80 years ago the world must have been black and white. But of course it didn’t actually look like those photographs. The way that it was photographed shaped that reality just as much then as now.” — photographer Alec Soth in an interview with Aperture.
“The Twilight Zone,” “The Fugitive,” and “Lost in Space”
The original “The Twilight Zone” (1959–64) was completely black and white — and completely perfect.
“The Twilight Zone” was so great that people tried to revive it in 1985, 2002, and 2019. But it never worked again because they couldn’t compare to the master.
“The Fugitive” (1963–67) is the story of a doctor wrongly accused of murder who then becomes a fugitive as he seeks the true killer. After three seasons in stark, somber black and white, the switch to color in season 4 made it seem like a different show.
“Lost in Space” (1965–68) similarly seemed to transform from one show to another. It started as a more serious science fiction show shot in black and white. The original was intended to be a futuristic update of the 19th century “Swiss Family Robinson” stories.
When the show went to color in Season 2, most of the characters (particularly the once sinister Dr. Smith) got sillier costumes, becoming more campy, clownish caricatures of their former selves. It was almost as if the color scenery represented colorful Halloween funhouse makeup that made everyone sillier.
Similarly, attempts to remake the series as a 1998 film and 2004 and 2018 TV series didn’t “get” the appeal of the original black and white remake of a classic 1812 novel.
“It is strange how man likes to conceal what is dirty by painting over it. After all, a whitewashed wall does not cease to be dirty underneath. Is that perhaps why people paint their faces — because they already see in them the decay of the grave?” — Venerable Stefan Wyszyński.
“Gunsmoke,” "The Lone Ranger" and all things Western
The best Westerns are the American version of the Iliad and the Odyssey, epics, telling a bigger story of culture, history, war, morality, and the life and death struggle between good and evil.
Westerns dominated the golden era of TV (in 1959, a full 30 Westerns ran in the three prime time TV network offerings). “Gunsmoke” was the best of the Westerns, running on the radio (1952–61), on TV from 1955–75, and as TV movies from 1987–92.
Over those decades, Marshall Matt Dillon was the main hero and representative of law and order, right and wrong. Matt was shot and wounded at least 56 times, stabbed three times, and poisoned once. In those same years, he is believed to have killed more than 400 adversaries.
In the black and white years (1955–1967), the show topped the ratings (ranked №1 in 1957–61), and its quality was unrivaled. Just one year after shifting to color in 1966, the network nearly canceled the show.
Instead, they moved it to a new night (Monday instead of Saturday), and its ratings soared again (remaining one of the seven-most shows on TV most of those years, including №2 in 1969–70).
Today, you can compare and contrast newer color TV reruns of “Gunsmoke” on TV Land and the older black and white reruns on the INSP network and MeTV. But this same concept could apply to “The Lone Ranger” and a host of other Westerns shot in both black and white and color:
- We see art in black and white: everything showing the magnificent contrasts between darkness, light, and shades of gray. This contrast applies to morals, justice, and mercy, hope, and loss. We feel instantly transported to another, classic earlier time when lines of difference were more clear.
- In color, we see a world looking a lot more like our own: the Western clothing suddenly looks more like costumes. The landscape looks amazing. However, the people look smaller in comparison. The popularity of Westerns crashed in the color TV era.
“The most colorful thing in the world is black and white, it contains all colors and at the same time excludes all.” ― Vikrmn.