Cruel world

Falling under the spell of 'I Saw the TV Glow'


The place is filled with glowing neon lights, loud noises and whirling games. Families play and celebrate birthday parties, but down the center aisle shuffles an old-timer apologizing to everyone and no one for their behavior. It’s a new medication, and they haven’t figured out the dosage yet. It was an outburst, an inconvenience, and they feel so sorry about it. 

But the revelers take no notice of the pleas, no acknowledgment of the old-timer’s existence. This is a fun center, one that’ll feel familiar to anyone who has visited a combination bowling alley-arcade. Yet, it’s alien at the same time. Is this a dream? Is this a nightmare?

In the hands of writer-director Jane Schoenbrun, it’s a bit of both, with a good dose of neon-soaked madness thrown in. I Saw the TV Glow, Schoenbrun’s second feature, is an unusual one — though I’m sure others will find less forgiving descriptors. The structure is governed by an ethereal, dreamlike logic that does and does not make sense. It’s a vibe: a particular kind of melancholy one experiences when they look back with fondness only to realize they got the whole thing wrong.

The story revolves around Owen (Justice Smith), a Black teen in mid-90s suburbia. Owen doesn’t have a whole lot of friends, and home life is strained. Then Owen meets Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a bewitching presence who introduces Owen to a cult TV show, The Pink Opaque. It’s a wild show filled with fierce images, bizarre storylines and a demonic ice cream cone — think Twin Peaks meets The Craft, as made by teenagers on a limited budget. Owen is mesmerized.

Owen and Maddy communicate through their shared love of The Pink Opaque, but they never connect. No one in I Saw the TV Glow connects. The world surrounding these characters feels depopulated and vacant. Those we do see in the background move in a zombie-like trance.

This is familiar territory for Schoenbrun, whose debut feature as director, 2021’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, has a similar fixation with screens, disconnection and characters moving catatonically through the world. And in each, Schoenbrun gives you the sense that this malaise settled over them well before the opening titles. What sets it in motion isn’t the point; what the characters do with it is.

TV Glow and World’s Fair could be described as low-key horror — you spend more time at unease than in terror. What these movies capture is a humanity so disconnected, they have become uncaring. In what might be the most painful scene in TV Glow, Owen has an excruciating breakdown at a most inopportune time. And though Owen disrupts the party proceedings, no one comforts, no one castigates, no one even reacts. They simply freeze in silence while Owen cries for help. 

All to say, there are no answers in TV Glow, only provocations. Owen’s breakdown is also coupled by an intrusion of the Fun Center’s pre-recorded PA system, reminding everyone they are in the fun zone while Owen chokes on sobs.

It’s a joke, but not one person in my screening, yours truly included, laughed. Yet, I can’t stop thinking about that moment and how cruel it seems, and whether that cruelty was the filmmaker’s intent or a simple way to break the tension.

That’s not the only question of intent with TV Glow. Here is a movie that underlines the “things are not what they seem” concept so superficially that it simultaneously seems to reject that superficiality. Owen and Maddy act like outcasts but inhabit a world that seems so indifferent no one has the energy to dismiss and reject either of them in the first place. To borrow one from Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much.”

I Saw the TV Glow is slow-moving, hypnotic and sort of boring. Yet it burrows under your skin in a way that off-center movies often do. It’s strange and alluring in the tradition of those late-night shows Schoenbrun models The Pink Opaque after. A lot of those shows were viewed by people lying on a couch, half-asleep, which led to a lot of interesting retellings the following day at school and work. It was weird and cool and kind of dreamlike, and nothing really made sense. Maybe that’s because we made the whole thing up all along. 

ON SCREEN: I Saw the TV Glow opens in theaters May 17.


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