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'I Saw the TV Glow' Review

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May 13, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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I couldn't tell what feelings I was experiencing while watching I Saw the TV Glow, but I can definitely tell you I was feeling something. There was terror, bewilderment, wonder, curiosity, nostalgia, and some sort of feeling of childhood innocence. And yet there was none of those things, at least in the forms I’d expected or had experienced before. I stared at the screen with the same hypnotized energy as the main characters watching their favorite show, The Pink Opaque. Was I liking what I was watching, and did it even make sense? I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now. But I can’t get it out of my head, and that’s what’s most important.

It all started in the late ‘90s, an era where the only things to watch were what was on TV at the time you were flipping through the channels. For seventh-grader Owen (played by Ian Foreman in the younger years, and Justice Smith when he’s older), everything is just a series of unmemorable images and noise. There’s something off about him, and it’s not just some childhood mood phase. He’s on a conveyor belt going through life, never interacting with anything or anyone. That is until he stumbles upon a show called The Pink Opaque airing on the Young Adult Network (this movie’s version of The CW Network). It’s a Buffy-esque teen drama about two girls with psychic powers fighting a monster-of-the-week, with the big bad guy named Mr. Melancholy looming throughout the seasons. The show speaks to him, yet he doesn’t exactly know what it’s saying. He just knows that he can’t live without hearing it.

Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun understands the allure of a fictional piece of art to kids of a certain age. Every adolescent has some inner holes they feel like they need to fill but don’t know how, and there’s nothing more powerful than plugging them with some special work that’s just your own. I could go to lengths about how much The Walking Dead meant to me as a 12-year-old middle schooler. Of course, millions of other people watched that show at its height, but the fact that I had to secretly watch it under the covers with my Kindle was something that made it mine. For Owen, The Pink Opaque is a show geared towards older kids that airs after his bedtime, meaning he has to sneak out of the house to watch it. There’s a thrill to the danger of being caught, and an indescribable satisfaction to the amount of work that needs to be done to get yourself in the right place at the right time. It’s the hidden price we pay through streaming, as everything feels just a little less special when you can have it whenever you want.

Owen’s haven for the show is the home of Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a ninth-grader who’s probably the show’s biggest fan. The show acts as a coping mechanism as they deal with her abusive stepdad and the overall shittiness high schoolers direct toward those that don’t align with their rigid constructs of gender and sexuality. Despite their opposite sexualities, I Saw the TV Glow is a love story for Owen and Maddy, with Smith and Lundy-Paine wonderfully selling the sense of belonging they desire from each other. Those Saturday nights in Maddy’s basement were the only moments they had to be their true selves.

Also mixed within this incredibly unique cocktail are some unsettling sequences and imagery. I know it’s a clichéd comparison to make, but there’s a Lynchian quality to all of it. This is not a horror movie nor are there any scenes with the sole intention to scare you, yet some moments chilled me to the bone. Much of it comes from Schoenbrun’s willingness to keep everything understated and shrouded in mystery, even if the inability to provide clear answers leaves a little much left on the table. But it also comes the excellent production qualities within the film and the fictional show. The ‘90s low-budget aesthetic of The Pink Opaque is authentically recreated, with the creature design warranting the Oscar recognition that these types of films never get.

Schoenbrun made their name with the 2021 feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a seminal work on creepypastas and underground internet culture. While its release during the pandemic definitely enhanced its aspects of loneliness, it also caused it to be sucked into the vortex of obscurity like so many other independent projects. Thankfully, I Saw the TV Glow doesn’t have those dire circumstances swirling around it and is being handled by A24, meaning there’s no excuse to not check this out.

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