Even as the modern television landscape is growing increasingly complex and colorful in its storytelling, it’s also becoming more black and white than it’s been in decades — in a quite literal sense.
In recent seasons, cutting-edge series across several genres — including “Black Mirror,” “Master of None,” “Feud: Bette & Joan,” “Twin Peaks,” “The Walking Dead” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — have gone visually vintage, experimenting with retro monochromatic visuals — sometimes for extended sequences, sometimes for entire episodes, but always for a very intentional effect.
“Black Mirror’s” fourth season, Charlie Brooker-penned episode “Metalhead” featured stark post-apocalyptic environments and a steely robotic bloodhound. Director David Slade filmed the entire episode in native black and white to underline the stripped-down, desaturated nature of the society.
“The world has been starved of color — there’s not much hope left in the world — so to have the world be drained of color felt right,” executive producer Annabel Jones told Variety. “And also, for a lot of it you are seeing the robot’s POV, and it’s digital, it’s kind of grainy. The idea that we paint the whole world through the robot’s eyes appealed to us and made sense and we embraced it wholeheartedly.”
With a big-screen filmography including the fully black-and-white films “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man,” David Lynch has an established affinity for the palette, and he employed it for much of the eighth episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return.” “Gotta Light?” features sequences set during the first atomic bomb test detonation in 1945 and at a classic American diner.
“Because of the time period of that material, David felt black and white was probably the most effective,” says director of photography Peter Deming. “I think the excitement level was high. Every time we shot black and white, I’d just turn to David and say, ‘Can we do the whole show like this?’ For me, it’s just a really expressive sort of graphic style choice that I embrace all the time.”
“The Walking Dead” executive producer Scott M. Gimple says the show used black and white for a series of flashback sequences in its sixth season premiere to better distinguish the story’s dual narratives for the audience.
“This really was to facilitate the storytelling, which had this very non-linear ordering. It really, really helped with the organization of the story,” says Gimple, who co-wrote the 2015 episode, titled “First Time Again.” “And the shots themselves were very, very beautiful in black and white.”
Early on, he admits he favored using black and white but knew he’d face skepticism. For flexibility the sequences were shot in color and later desaturated.
“It was something in my brain from before I was showrunning that I absolutely wanted to try,” says Gimple, who appreciates how the technique is reminiscent of creator Robert Kirkman’s original black-and-white comic books.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creator and star Rachel Bloom says the comedy frequently employs black and white to recreate the feel of everything from splashy 1940s musicals to stylized 1990s music videos.
“We’re looking to do as many different genres as possible, and black and white harkens back to what everything in TV and film looked like before,” Bloom says. “When you’re doing genre as much as we are, utilizing black and white is very important. And for the kind of songs that are like sketches, the black and white gives you that [sense of], ‘OK, this is the genre we’re about to break. This is the straight man to the sketch that we’re about to do.’”
In its first season, “Feud” largely employed a black-and-white palette for sequences depicting the real life film careers of its main characters Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (played by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, respectively).
“With ‘Feud,’ there’s nothing too mysterious about when or why we use black and white,” says executive producer Tim Minear. “In an episode I directed, I recreated the trailer from a movie called ‘Strait-Jacket’ that Joan Crawford starred in, and I did it almost shot-for-shot of what they had done. We really tried to capture the spirit of what we were replicating.”
Minear admits that black and white can be a challenge on the production side, but it is one he welcomes because with a bigger risk comes a bigger reward.
“It’s harder to shoot, it’s harder to make — and it’s far more fulfilling,” Minear says.
Shortly after television made the shift from black and white to color by the mid-1960s, creative producers began using monochrome to evoke bygone eras in their storytelling. Among the earliest and most successful efforts were the 1976 “MASH” episode “The Interview,” presented in newsreel style, and the 1985 “Moonlighting” episode “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” which transported its characters into a film noir environment.
One of “The X-Files’” most-hailed standalone installments is 1997’s “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” shot in the expressionist style of ’30s monster movies; segments of the 1999 “Star Trek: Voyager” episode “Bride of Chaotica!” channeled “Flash Gordon”-esque serials; and “The Simpsons” routinely pays homage to the black-and-white horror films it parodies in its annual “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episodes.
“People are trying to set their material apart, and black and white is very striking,” says Deming of the trend towards shades of gray. “If it fits into the narrative and doesn’t feel forced, it’s a great choice and an attention grabber.”