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Review: 'I Saw the TV Glow' Is A Great And Terrible Fantasia

By Jason Adams | Film | May 17, 2024 |

By Jason Adams | Film | May 17, 2024 |


When I was a kid in the 1980s and ’90s I didn’t know a single gay person. I knew gayness existed thanks to Sunday School where I learned it was a sin, and that gave me a name (and a shame) for the feelings I was feeling toward other boys. And every so often a signal as if beamed out from outer space, like when you hear a high-pitched sound that nobody else seems to notice, would interrupt daily life—a flouncing character on The Golden Girls. Two men tucked chastely in bed beside one another on thirtysomething. One time my mother mentioned having a gay friend in high school nicknamed Tiny (I can still hear my father laughing about “the ridiculous fag”) and I remember sneaking off to scour her photo albums looking for photos of this person. A detective searching for clues—I needed tangible proof that people like me actually existed in the world.

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun’s extraordinary new film I Saw the TV Glow dug all of those feelings back up in me, much the same way that in the movie we watch one character dig into their own body for truth. For their proof. Set in that same twilight time I came up in, immediately perched on the precipice before the internet would make it easier for people like me and like Jane to connect to the world at large, I Saw the TV Glow follows two suburban teenage outcasts named Owen (played first by Ian Foreman and then by Justice Smith) and Maddie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) as they bond over one of those shared communications beamed from outer space—in this instance it’s a Buffy-esque TV program titled The Pink Opaque.

The show, which we watch enough of to get the gist, follows two teen girls named Isobel (Helena Howard) and Tara (Lindsey Jordan) who live in the same small town but only ever meet up inside their minds. That’s where they work together telepathically each episode to defeat the weekly minions of the “big bad” Mr. Melancholy, a moon-faced monstrosity who wants to drag everybody into the terrible Midnight Realm where they’ll be his servants forever.

Although the messages the show is speaking to them are coded—there are glowing ghost symbols on the back of the girl’s necks, for example—Owen and Maddie seem to share the same obsessive need to unearth their meaning. A feeling that somewhere inside of them, they know. The tug of the fishing line hooked deep, familiar to those who’ve needed and felt the same thing themselves, once upon a time.

When Owen first meets Maddie (in the ghostly halls of their school on Voting Night, 1996) she’s reading a printed book (funny that I have to specify “printed” nowadays) about The Pink Opaque—episode deconstructions and theories, behind-the-scenes photos. And she gifts the book to Owen even though he’s never yet seen an episode of the show. He’s only seen a commercial, but his stern and distant father won’t let him stay up to watch it. (His father pointedly asks, “Isn’t that a girl’s show?”) A few years later, these teens would’ve been anonymously geeking out on the Television Without Pity message boards (holla if that was you too), but here, this personal exchange—this hand-off, a passing of a baton—makes a massive difference.

Before long Owen is sneaking out on Saturday nights to watch the show at Maddie’s, and as the years pass (switching Owen actors along the way) Maddie starts recording the episodes for him on videotapes, elaborately doodled over with questions and titles, hiding them in the school’s dark-room where she seems to spend all of her days. The two don’t seem to speak or hang out while at school—they pass each other silently in the halls, the sort of imposed isolation that we all have agreed to without agreeing to at some point in our lives. The need to present our selves as one thing, denying the truths underneath. The two must, like Isobel and Tara on the TV program, only speak telepathically.

As with their previous film We’re All Going To The World’s Fair, Schoenbrun (who is trans and non-binary) smartly knows that these sorts of obsessions are even more complex more than double-sided—we might scratch at meaning in fictions, but it’s one that is inherently built upon someone else’s meaning. (A lot of us learned that lesson the hard way with Joss Whedon, after all.) Getting lost in someone else’s stories is simultaneously pluses and minuses, and I Saw the TV Glow is wisely ambivalent toward scraping our self-definition off the rusty broadside of an outside source. You might feel an electric charge finally seeing yourself reflected back on the screen, but the road to self-discovery is littered with corpses—mostly our own. One after the other. A path of rotting meat, our past horizon.

The Lynchian liminal spaces and day-glo neons that Schoenbrun carves into blackness paints Owen and Maddie’s world as one that’s fundamentally fictive—the barriers between the real and the imagined grow thinner and thinner as the movie progresses, and as we watch our heroes choose their individual paths in life. Around the midpoint, tragedy strikes—the show is canceled, and a character disappears—and the film (with strong shades of Lost Highway) seems to disassemble, reforming itself in mirroring contradictions. Meaning itself begins spiraling out of control. We see three versions of the Ice Cream Man, for goodness’ sake. Three!

Owen and Maddie’s journeys do eventually find their way back to one another, but what’s real or not no longer coheres. Time passes in fits and starts—characters age in artificial spurts like a Charlie Kaufman movie. Gray stage-paint streaked hair passes for an epoch. The forage for one’s self, I Saw the TV Glow argues, is neverending; a search party lost in the woods with their flashlights blinking out one by one, mostly fresh blackness rising up to fill the spots where infinitesimal flashes of understanding once stood. We ache across the years with only questions for our questions. Who we thought we were yesterday slipped away in the night; there’s a stranger in the mirror staring back at us every morning. Selfhood, the great and terrible fantasia. A hiss of static spilling from between our teeth in place of words. And for this, we apologize. And after the Late Show, we dig our own graves again, night after night, after night.