'I Saw the TV Glow' — Surreal, mind-blowing nightmare or just mad TV?

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Sunday May 12, 2024
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Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Payne in 'I Saw the TV Glow' (photo: A24 Films)
Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Payne in 'I Saw the TV Glow' (photo: A24 Films)

There was a time not so long ago when in order to see the latest episode of your favorite cult weekly TV program, you had to sit in front of your set at a fixed time. If you missed a show, you were out of luck (or waited until it was rerun during the summer), especially if it had a continuing plot.

There was an almost obsessive, even hypnotic quality to immersing oneself in a show, with the waiting in-between adding to the excitement and anticipation of craving that installment, especially if you shared the experience with family or friends. You couldn't stop yourself from watching and these shows became not just entertainment, but lifelines, especially for queer folk.

Somehow, today's binge behavior, viewing an entire season within a matter of hours or one day, which is largely a solitary pursuit and so easily accessible, lacks that enthusiastic suspense element.

The new film "I Saw the TV Glow" (distributed by A24) both revels in this compulsive escapism but critiques our culture's fixation with nostalgia as a kind of cocoon and the ways we find and identify ourselves in the shows we eyeball, especially when what happens on the screen becomes more real than one's own life.

Justice Smith in 'I Saw The TV Glow.' (photo: Spencer Pazer/A24)  

Think pink
Shy monotone Owen (played by Ian Foreman in junior high, then by Justice Smith in high school and as an adult), is a lonely high school teenager whose father is abusive (he later calls "The Pink Opaque" a girl's show) and whose mother is dying. While waiting for his parents to finish voting at Void High School in 1996, he encounters an older girl, Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), in the school cafeteria.

She's also lonely and has a violent stepfather. She's reading a book that summarizes episodes of her favorite show "The Pink Opaque," (on the Young Adult Network) which resembles "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

She tells Owen about the program, which concerns two girls, Tara (Lindsey Jordan) and Isabel (Helena Howard) who meet at camp and can communicate telepathically with each other. They are sent by a malformed monster shaped like a moon, Mr. Melancholy, to fight goofy minor villains.

Owen's curiosity is piqued, but the show is on too late so his parents won't let him see it. They devise a scheme where Owen tells his parents he's staying overnight at a classmate's house, so he can watch "The Pink Opaque" with Maddy. He's enthralled with the show and isn't repulsed by the grotesque imagery. Rather than sneaking out to her place, Maddy leaves VHS tapes of episodes in the darkroom of their school, so Owen can view them later at home.

You, tube
Maddy disappears and Owen doesn't hear back from her for years. She returns and tells Owen she wants her life to be more like "The Pink Opaque," and is ready to fulfill this fantasy entirely, leaving the real world behind to enter a parallel dimension. When she actually does it, all that remains is a burning CRT TV. Throughout the film there are surreal elements bordering on horror, as if one were in a nightmare.

The rest of the film follows Owen and how his continued fixation with the show affects his life as he becomes an adult working in a children's recreation park, barely surviving financially. He's trapped, a virtual loner with no relationships, barely living, disappearing inside himself. He feels like an outsider in his own world.

The film is also a trans allegory. Maddy tells Owen she's a lesbian, then asks, "What about you? Do you like girls?" Owen replies, "I don't know," and answers the same when she questions him about boys. "I think I like TV shows," reveals Owen. "When I think about that stuff, I feel like someone took a shovel and dug out my insides. I know there's nothing there, but I'm still too nervous to open myself up to check."

This fear is interpreted as gender dysphoria, but Owen despite trying to find the real meaning behind his memories of the show, never realizes what it is. We see one-blink-and- you'll-miss-it flashback when Maddy gets Owen briefly to wear a dress. He has a sense he is someone other than himself, searching for a true self he can't identify.

Justice Smith in 'I Saw The TV Glow.' (photo: Spencer Pazer/A24)  

Switch channels
The film induces a kind of dysphoria in the audience, pointing out despair in life (especially immersed in conformist humdrum suburban alienation) yet how difficult it can be to change one's situation.

The film's message is, don't be scared of being who you really are, because secrets and lies are soul-killing. One can live vicariously through a TV show or confront one's fears. Both Maddy and Owen feel safe inside the TV, where they can hide, but eventually those spaces become a sort of prison that one needs to escape.

Trans, non-binary writer/director Jane Schoenbrun ("We're All Going to the World's Fair," her buzzy, well-praised debut) has created a dark, claustrophobic, mind-bending fantasy with a hip soundtrack. The film acts as a coming out metaphor where the characters are trying to liberate themselves from the other side of the screen, requiring courage and fortitude to do so.

Maddy at one point asks Owen, "Do you ever feel like you're narrating your own life—watching it play in front of you like an episode of television?"

Of course, this dissociative stage mimics the dysphoria trans people undergo, where you sense something is wrong but can't name what's happening. How can trans people be themselves in a world constantly trying to convince them they are someone else? Schoenbrun isn't interested in translating the trans experience for non-trans folk, but rather conveying what it represents emotionally for them.

There's lots of queer and trans coding in this film, meant to validate their identities. While I'm sure many trans folk will pick up on all the symbolism (i.e. a lowering coffin as the death of one's former discarded self), for many other viewers it will be abstract and the plot a mystery at times, reminiscent of David Lynch's work. There's indecipherable imagery that is nonetheless unforgettable, days after watching it.

"I Saw the TV Glow" is less a coming-of-age picture and more a falling-apart saga, as it both celebrates and warns the audience of how TV can alter their perception of who one is.

While some will treasure this movie and others will find it baffling, there's no doubt it will probably be the most talked about and debated film of 2024. Schoenbrun is inventive, daring, unnerving, and provocative, a master at creating a sinister mood and now clearly a rising star in the indie world, a force with whom cinema will have to reckon.


Currently screening at AMC Kabuki 8 and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission in San Francisco.

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