I Saw the TV Glow


Jane Schoenbrun’s second narrative feature is a gnawing search for belonging in the static spaces between analog pixels. They stir dreamlike logic into scavenged memories, especially in a scene early in the film that grasps at how the medium of television’s celestial radiance can grant wide-eyed salvation in even the darkest room. A young Owen (Ian Foreman) gains permission from his mother Brenda (Danielle Deadwyler) to ostensibly sleepover at a classmate’s house. Instead, he ventures across manicured suburban lawns at night to visit Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a cynical older girl he only just met at school, and Maddy’s friend, who are watching the teen show “The Pink Opaque” on the Young Adult Network. Twist curls and a beaming smile mark Owen’s innocence, as well as his obvious desire for friendship and community. As surreal images of the show’s grotesque monsters and slippery mythology wisp pass him, he isn’t afraid. He is enthralled. That dopamine surge of recognition haunts Owen, and it’s one of the film’s many telling moments that has persistently beckoned me to return. 

“I Saw the TV Glow” mostly takes place during Owen’s older teenage years, when arresting questions of identity, sexuality, and personhood often occur with urgency. A transformative Justice Smith takes the reins of Owen, playing this outcast with the wounded rawness of a permanent scar. Owen’s young adult years are stained by personal loss and his on-again, off-again friendship with Maddy, which takes shape through and around their shared love of “The Pink Opaque,” a show that feels like a throwback to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The show provides a window into the crushing angst Owen feels but cannot name, while his direct addresses offer intermittent grounding for his self-sabotaging. The push-pull manages to lull the viewer into a quiet trance before unmooring them into a state of unbridled panic.     

Whether he knows it or not, from the moment he first catches sight of Maddy reading an episode guide to “The Pink Opaque,” Owen is searching for himself. Though his late-night visit to Maddy’s house is initially a one-off, his fascination with the show hasn’t diminished when he reconnects with her two years later. Rather than sneaking out to Maddy’s place, she leaves him VHS recordings of the episodes, with titles like “Homecoming to Get You” and “The Trouble with Tara Part 1” scribbled in pink ink, in their school’s dark room for Owen to find. Owen passionately watches these installments to the point of barely breathing, digging deeper and deeper into himself and the series’ mythology. 

As a story within the story, “The Pink Opaque” is equally unshakable: Its premise involves two telepathically linked girls (played by Helena Howard and Lindsey Jordan) fighting villains dispatched by the big bad, a malformed monster in the shape of a moon named Mr. Melancholy, on a weekly basis. Schoenbrun films these episodes with a winking playfulness that initially suggests a kind of silly pastiche before softly revealing deeper, abstract truths about Owen and Maddy. In the show, Owen and Maddy see their mundane suburb, whose assimilative conventionality of gender norms and atrophied dreams is itself suffocating, reflected back at them through a queer lens. “What about you? Do you like girls?” Maddy asks Owen on the school bleachers. “I don’t know,” a shy Owen replies. “Boys?” presses Maddy. “I think I like TV shows,” delivers an unvarnished Smith. “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.” 

Though Owen’s insecurities could be interpreted as being related to gender dysphoria, while watching “I Saw the TV Glow,” I also kept returning back to Jordan Peele’s “Us.” That film uses an earlier decade, the 1980s, and its reductive politics as a launching point to render the horrific economic legacy of Reagan’s America through the eyes of a Black nuclear family’s misplaced desire for upward mobility through crass consumerism. Television also plays a powerful role in that film: A commercial for “Hands Across America” inspires a young Addy to plan a revolt after her mind is awakened to the systemic inequality that comes from the many living a nightmare so a few might live a dream. Like Addy, the television unmoored Owen’s place in this picturesque town. He is enlivened by the lies of Clinton’s America, when forced homogenization—by way of bills like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—created the illusion of progressivism and diversity amid consumerist fantasies. It’s telling how not only is Owen one of the few Black faces we see in town, but he also immediately gravitates toward Maddy, a person whose identity and close relationship to television has also awakened them to the curated lies of suburban life. For Maddy, television, like Addy, becomes a roadmap for revolt. On the other hand, television as a medium—where Black subjectivity is shaken, reimagined, and then re-lived—frightens Owen enough to embrace the safe, stifling fantasy of blending in by leaving yourself undefined.          

Far too often, when filmmakers graduate up the ledger, they become conservative, safe, and careerist; it feels like they’re making the current film solely with the mindset of remaining at the budgetary level they’ve just attained. With “I Saw the TV Glow,” the director’s glossy follow-up to their resourcefully executed “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” Schoenbrun films like a director who doesn’t want to live in regret of the shot they didn’t get, the risk not taken, the leap that never left the ground. The earworm original soundtrack, exciting practical effects, intoxicating photography, and risky editing—blending together conscious and imagined worlds—are the big, adventurous swings of an undaunted filmmaker. 

That creative courage translates to the film’s arresting performances. Lundy-Paine is unwavering, playing Maddy as the kind of person whose direct exterior belies the pain seen in their closed in-frame and averted gaze. As Owen, Smith, at first, mirrors Lundy-Paine’s posture. But before long, following their characters’ emotional journeys, their shared physicality diverges: Lundy-Paine strikes a broad, self-assured pose, while Smith shrinks his chest to the point of being nearly caved in. Smith is especially incredible, transforming organically without ever feeling gimmicky. His body is thoughtfully unassured; his voice eventually rattles like a man who died long ago; his eyes become vacant orbs where defeat has found a cozy home. His late, climatically cathartic scream, which gives way to a blissful smile, reverberates with the same intensity of Schoenbrun‘s “I Saw the TV Glow”—looping like a rerun that always feels fresh and new, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.  

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