Maybe like me, you enjoy the old black and white movies and early television shows. When my girls were young, they categorized black and white shows as boring simply because they were not in color. In time they learned that many of the older movies and shows were rich with clever plots, warm humor, and a simpler gauge of morality than you would find in today’s films.
Recently I caught myself binge-watching an old black and white Classic TV show called “Peter Gunn”. Filmed in 1958-1961, I was initially drawn to it because of the wonderful soft jazz music weaved throughout each episode. In the series, Gunn’s girl Edie is a sultry jazz club singer. So in addition to the background music, most episodes feature her singing the popular jazz songs of that era. The “Peter Gunn Theme” even won Henry Mancini an Emmy and two Grammys.
But do you know what kept me watching episode after episode? The stylish romance and simple morality. The writers created sweet romantic scenes between Gunn and Edie through quirky banter and sophisticated dialogue and no ‘skin’ showing. But perhaps what I enjoyed most is what I call the “black and white morality” of the stories. ‘Black and white’ meaning clear distinction with no gradation, a usage that dates back 2,000 years. In Peter Gunn there is no question as to who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. There is a predictably of the show that today’s more sophisticated viewer might find tedious, but I somehow find reassuring.
In each episode, there was good and there was evil. Evil deserved imprisonment or destruction, while good always triumphed. The morality was black and white. The characters rarely traveled in grey areas. So when Lt. Jacoby pulled his gun and shot a criminal, which he did with great regularity, he felt no guilt. The viewer is not given time to weigh the morality. It was ‘necessary’, now it’s done, good guys go home, end of story. I know, today that sounds terrible. But television back then was not seen as a reflection of reality, it was an escape. Personally, I appreciate the brief escape into a world that is so black and white. I like knowing who I can trust.
The show was not made to push an agenda, or scold us, or even challenge us to question our own morality. Peter Gunn presented a consistent plot line where the bad guys lost and the good guys won. This was the standard by which they measured the moral of the story. You are not supposed to look any deeper than that. And sometimes for entertainment purposes that is enough for me. It is black and white, clear cut, good vs. evil. (Of course, I would not applaud Lt. Jacoby’s attitude – his lack of bearing the weight of responsibility for taking a life, nor his behavior of always entering the scene shooting, in any actual circumstances.)
We may scoff at their simplistic approach, but were the black and white shows so far off in their plumb line for morality? Perhaps we make morality more complicated than is necessary. We love our little gray areas. In fact, we have veered so far off the ‘good vs. evil’ moral compass that people no longer believe in any moral absolutes. If there are no moral absolutes than by what standard do we measure morality? By what our laws stipulate, or by what is the current trend, or by what we want? Evidence seems to point to the latter.
In the book of Judges (this is a book of the Bible replete with stories of good vs evil,) there is a verse that describes the society of that time. Judges 21:25 says “And each one did what was right in his own eyes.” The line between right and wrong blurred when there was no standard by which to measure it. Life quickly got ugly and choices appeared complicated. From my point of view, this is a fairly good description of our own times. In Judges, that lack of a moral compass led to sorrow and destruction.
Our society’s sliding scale of morality, clearly reflected in our entertainment industry, is hard to keep up with. It is heartbreaking to see the downward spiral continue. As Christians we need to stop trying to make truth complicated. God is good. We need to stop trying to make the application of truth so complicated. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” I Corinthians 10:31. The Classic TV shows may provide an escape, but God’s Word provides simple truth to deal with the complexities of life today. And in the end, the bad guys lose and our good God wins. That seems pretty black and white to me.