I Saw the TV Glow Ed Halter

In Jane Schoenbrun’s new puzzle of a film, deconstructed horror meets ’90s coming-of-age queer narrative.

Ian Foreman as Young Owen in I Saw the TV Glow. Courtesy A24. Photo: Spencer Pazer.

I Saw the TV Glow, written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun,
now playing in theaters

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Introduced with an abject crawl down a neon-chalked suburban street at night and a seething blast of cathode-ray-tube static, the sarcastically goth 1996 imagined at the start of Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow could double as the background of a Nine Inch Nails video. We enter the hellish, shadowy corridors of Void High School, where fluorescent overheads flicker and hiss, a dissonant student jazz band blurts, and a bulletin board reads “Go Vultures.” There, baby-faced seventh-grader Owen (Ian Foreman) stumbles across ninth-grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a raven-haired weirdie girl, crumpled on the floor in the dark near a luminous Fruitopia vending machine and studying a well-worn paperback. He strikes up a conversation with her about the book, which is an official episode guide to The Pink Opaque, a television show he’s curious about but has never seen. Despite what he might have heard, Maddy warns him, it’s not really a kid’s show. “I mean, yeah, technically it’s on the Young Adult Network,” she says, peering up from the pages. “But it’s way too scary and the mythology is way too complicated for most kids.” Lundy-Paine’s downbeat delivery provides the character with a convincing air of late-twentieth-century adolescent depression, tinged with the promise of cultish joy.

Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maddy and Ian Foreman as Young Owen in I Saw the TV Glow. Courtesy A24. Photo: Spencer Pazer.

Maddy invites Owen over to her house to watch the next episode, at 10:30 pm on Saturday. It’s the channel’s last offering of the night, she tells him, “before they switch over to black-and-white shows for old people.” He sneaks over to see it, and Schoenbrun conveys The Pink Opaque through fragmentary clips with analog-video textures. The series is about two telepathically connected teenage girls, Isabel (Helena Howard) and Tara (Lindsey Jordan), who join powers to battle the forces of Mr. Melancholy, a demonic version of the Man in the Moon.

Lindsey Jordan as Tara and Helena Howard as Isabel in I Saw the TV Glow. Courtesy A24. Photo: Spencer Pazer.

The Pink Opaque is an even denser pastiche of old media memories than the world Maddy and Owen inhabit. Its content summons Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its production values mimic Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and an eerie X-Files-style whistle drifts through its opening theme. As Maddy warned, the mythology is indeed complicated, though only bits of it are relayed throughout the course of TV Glow: “the midnight realm,” “the psychic plane,” a bright-blue gunk called Luna Juice, and gibbering baddies who resemble Matthew Barney’s Cremaster creatures mixed with McDonald’s macrocephalic pitchman Mac Tonight.

Justice Smith as Owen and Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maddy in I Saw the TV Glow. Courtesy A24.

The bulk of the film concerns Owen from his teenage years onward (played at these ages by Justice Smith). In 1998, he continues his fandom of the show by watching VHS tapes sent to him by Maddy, clinging to its cheesy fantasy as a reprieve from a cold father (Fred Durst), an ailing mother (Danielle Deadwyler), and the growing anxiety that there is something different about him that he does not understand. Trying to explain his internal turmoil to Maddy on the benches overlooking the school’s empty football field, Owen is achingly inarticulate, uneasy in his own skin. Maddy asks him if he likes girls or boys. “I think I like TV shows,” he responds. As the film depicts Owen in his twenties and beyond, his inner discomfort builds and the monstrous world of The Pink Opaque begins to bleed into his reality.

Justice Smith as Owen in I Saw the TV Glow. Courtesy A24. Photo: Spencer Pazer.

The above, however, is a retrospectively linear description of Owen’s life, which TV Glow presents in a much less straightforward fashion. The movie is pleasurably confounding, with jagged ellipses, unreliable narration, and sudden torrents of verbal and visual information that resist quick processing. Like the work of David Cronenberg or Richard Kelly, two pioneering genre-subverters evoked by TV Glow, Schoenbrun’s film—constructed like a puzzle for its own future fan base to pore over—rewards a rewatch. As Owen’s line about liking TV shows indicates, there are queer undertones to this coming-of-age story from the beginning, ultimately revealing a few unburied memories of fleeting trans self-realization. Schoenbrun effectively expresses the repression, awakening, and ultimate collapse of Owen’s psyche through the film’s lurching disjunctions and temporal confusions. A viewer who sees the movie only once could miss how much the occulted queer story at the core of TV Glow generates the structure of the film as a whole.

Ian Foreman as Young Owen in I Saw the TV Glow. Courtesy A24. Photo: Spencer Pazer.

For a project obsessed with the weird nature of memory, it’s fitting that TV Glow is a retro period piece, situated just over the edge of yesterday. Schoenbrun’s earlier work trafficked in the terrors of more contemporary technologies. Their found-footage featurette A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018) chronicles the internet’s Slender Man fright-meme phenomenon through a supercut of user-generated and commercial content in which the collectively constructed character appears. Their first feature, the modest and minimal We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), concerns a teen who descends into madness after she engages in a social-media challenge and is told partially through Skype windows, YouTube videos, and other online mediations.

Still from I Saw the TV Glow. Courtesy A24.

Horror has long been used as a Trojan horse for serious cinema—in fact, one of A24’s defining qualities as a brand is how well the company has been able to sell highbrow art wrapped inside hip genre packaging. TV Glow continues this mission by delivering a deconstructed horror film that symbolically explores trans experience from an internal perspective in ways rarely before seen in general-release titles. It’s also a film created when cinema has all but collapsed into television, both aesthetically and functionally, under the dominance of streaming, and the distinctions between an A24 one-off and the latest edition of Black Mirror can feel marginal. For all its neon-dark Euphoria sheen and Instagram-friendly pink-and-purple palettes, there are numerous moments in TV Glow when Schoenbrun pushes strongly against the film’s pop-product prison into less expected effects, like the unusually mesmerizing numbers performed by Phoebe Bridgers and Haley Dahl, each of which stops the narrative dead in its tracks for the duration of the song, or a split second of violet-colored emulsion scratch that decorates Owen’s vomit spew during one of the emotional climaxes. TV Glow becomes a movie about the fear of arrested development in more ways than one—not only in its protagonist’s failure to self-actualize but also in pop cinema’s inability to escape television’s forever-adolescent suburbs.

Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for cinema in all its forms in Brooklyn, New York, and Critic in Residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

In Jane Schoenbrun’s new puzzle of a film, deconstructed horror meets ’90s coming-of-age queer narrative.
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