I SAW THE TV GLOW movie poster | ©2024 A24

I SAW THE TV GLOW movie poster | ©2024 A24

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Lindsey Jordan, Danielle Deadwyler, Fred Durst
Writer: Jane Schoenbrun
Director: Jane Schoenbrun
Distributor: A24
Release Date: May 3, 2024

I SAW THE TV GLOW is dreamy and quasi-surreal. It opens with a shot of a dark street, where half the asphalt is covered in blue, pink and purple blacklight markings, and half is just black. The symbolism sets the stage for what is to come.

Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s stated topics here include identity and television fandom – not “let’s go to Comic-Con and celebrate our favorite shows, plural” fandom, but “I am obsessed with this specific show to the point of experiencing it as life” fandom. There are also nods to transgender experience, although the movie never discusses this overtly.

In I SAW THE TV GLOW, the television series that beckons to the main characters is called THE PINK OPAQUE. This (fictional) series aired at 10:30 PM Saturday nights on the (likewise fictional) Young Adult Network during the 1990s.

This is explained to us by Owen (Justice Smith), a sorrowful-looking man who occasionally narrates to fill in temporal blanks.

I SAW THE TV GLOW takes us back to 1996, when Owen (played as a young teen by Ian Foreman) is a lonely thirteen-year-old. He is fascinated by the ads for THE PINK OPAQUE. His father won’t let him stay up late enough to watch it.

Then he sees older schoolmate Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) reading an episode guide book for the series. After initial hesitation, she talks with him. When Owen explains why he can’t view THE PINK OPAQUE at home, Maddie invites him to come over to her house, despite her family issues (her mom is alcoholic, her stepfather is abusive).

So, Owen starts lying to his parents about having sleepovers at another friend’s house, Maddie makes him videotapes of the episodes, and they are both hooked.

THE PINK OPAQUE series is about two teens, Isabel (Helena Howard) and Tara (Lindsey Jordan). They have only met in person once, but due to their intense psychic link, they are able to come together on the spirit plane and fight the many monsters sent into our world by the evil Mr. Melancholy.

Shout-out to the design for Mr. Melancholy, which appears to be inspired by the lunar image from Georges Mèliés’s influential 1902 science-fiction film A TRIP TO THE MOON.

THE PINK OPAQUE has some intentionally clunky bits that we’re shown, but it’s also got enough eerie, trippy and emotional qualities to make it plausible as a cult item. (There are a few hints that it may be meant to echo BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, but it’s not necessary to be familiar with that series to follow along here.)

Two years later, Owen as an older teen is now played by Smith. When he and Maddie discuss sexuality, Maddie knows she likes women; after trying to come up with a self-definition, Owen says, “I like TV shows.”

Then THE PINK OPAQUE is canceled on a bummer of a cliffhanger, Maddie vanishes, and Owen is devastated.

Then it’s eight years later, and Maddie returns, with some uncommon new convictions.

There are parts of I SAW THE TV GLOW that are fascinating and affecting, thanks in large part to the raw, nothing-held-back performances of Smith and Lundy-Paine. While Foreman is an excellent actor, and it’s understandable that Schoenbrun (or any other filmmaker) would want to work with him, it is a bit disconcerting that the actor playing Owen is swapped out for a two-year age change, while the actor playing Maddie remains the same. Odder still is the choice to put makeup on Smith to age him up later on, as it looks distracting.

It entirely makes sense that Schoenbrun sets most of I SAW THE TV GLOW in the 1990s and early 2000s, before streaming and the Internet made both obscure TV series and their fans much easier to find.

While I SAW THE TV GLOW is more accessible than Schoenbrun’s 2022 narrative feature WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR – also about preoccupation with media (in that instance, a videogame) – it still has much that comes across as so personal that it defies easy interpretation. This can come feel either profound or draggy, depending on one’s perspective and willingness to tease out subtext.

I SAW THE TV GLOW may be a heartfelt plea not to have unutterably depressing finales on shows with deeply invested cult followings, which is a message a lot of people can get behind. There’s more to it than that, but Schoenbrun leaves so much open-ended that many points remain elusive. Still, just as THE PINK OPAQUE does with Owen and Maddie, there are elements of I SAW THE TV GLOW that will likely imprint on the viewer’s memory.

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