I Saw the TV Glow: a rough portrait of fanatical obsession

Two misfit high schoolers escape their mundane suburban reality through a 1990s supernatural TV show in Jane Schoenbrun’s surreal and at times unwieldy second feature.

30 January 2024

By Nicolas Rapold

Justice Smith as Owen and Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maddy in I Saw the TV Glow (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival

One of the most anticipated second features by a contemporary American independent filmmaker must be Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow, which premiered at Sundance 2024 to admiring reviews across the board. Unfolding in a twilight, sickly-seeming world of 1990s suburbia, it’s the vibe-driven story of a stalled-out boy named Owen who finds some escape if not salvation through a supernatural television show.  

Owen (played by Justice Smith for most of the film) stumbles upon an older, scoffing outsider at his school, Maddy, while she’s reading the show’s episode guide – one of many decade-specific markers laced throughout the film. That includes the TV show, titled The Pink Opaque, about two girls with a psychic connection who fight the forces of evil: it airs on a Nickelodeon-esque Young Adult Network, combines elements of Are You Afraid of the Dark and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and is the obsessive focus of Maddy and then Owen, who meekly strikes up a bond with his older friend. 

The show offers a rule-bending world of possibility aside from mundane suburban reality, and captivates Maddy, who identifies as queer, and Owen, who can’t yet name his unease, something beyond adolescent anomie. More generally it stands for the promise of an alternate narrative and way of being from their respective tense homes. Owen, who’s biracial, is close with his mom (Danielle Deadwyler) but gets flak from his swaggering dad (singer Fred Durst). It’s also in line with Schoenbrun’s penchant for conjuring liminal cultural spaces, as in the haunting pandemic-essential We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), in which a teenage girl navigates an online Creepypasta-style challenge.

I Saw the TV Glow has more expansive ambitions, with its Lynchian labyrinths of mood and affect, its span across multiple eras of Owen’s life, its specially commissioned pop soundtrack, and two leads from big shows and blockbusters (plus striking walk-ons). Schoenbrun is a leading voice in trans cinema, and in Owen the film seems to dramatise a state of not-becoming, through rough textures, colours that are by turns gloomy and vivid, and stunning music performances at a club that express the strong emotions held inside. As Owen and Maddy age and diverge, The Pink Opaque turns from shared obsession to almost a missing legend, like nostalgia happening before our eyes. “Sometimes The Pink Opaque feels more real than real life,” we hear at one point, even as the show’s mythologising is contrasted in hindsight with its chintzy effects and childlike acting. 

Many filmmakers come to mind as Schoenbrun continues to build out their lexicon of potent images (a smoking ice cream truck, an ice cream ogre) and modes of engagement (Maddy finds a middle distance with her gazes that suggests another life, somewhere else). As with directors Jennifer Reeder and Bertrand Mandico, Schoenbrun forges different visual and emotional palettes while fusing together multiple genres. Lynch’s impact is clear, if only because of how the film’s sequences (dramatic or musical) share a quality of surreal assemblage, though here not necessarily the same gripping sense of dream logic. I Saw the TV Glow also in a way internalises the cult phenomenon quality of Donnie Darko (2001) as part of its text, while doing its own reworking of American cinema’s suburban portraiture.

All these texts are worth referencing because of the pop cultural mirroring going on in I Saw the TV Glow, but they’re tough comparisons when applied to other aspects of the filmmaking. As powerful as individual sequences can be and granting the urge not to give the film a smooth surface and sense of continuity, the movie still feels balky in its assembly and direction, especially with the actors (Smith verges on one-note in committing to a kind of waking shellshock). The notion of The Pink Opaque comes to function as a kind of echo chamber, confounding the character’s fanatic obsession with an actual sustained intensity in the film. There’s the awed sense of a blueprint or roadmap that is insisted upon without entirely being executed and fulfilled. 

To an extent it can feel churlish to pick apart a film that’s so indefatigably crafting torturous dreamscapes, one that’s crawling with the tedium and terror and thrills and bafflement of Owen trying to get through this world alive. I Saw the TV Glow‘s ending rattled some audience members at its Sundance premiere, but it felt wrenchingly true in conveying Owen’s stuck-ness. The TV show title The Pink Opaque is also, as it turns out, the name of a Cocteau Twins compilation album, and perhaps I Saw the TV Glow is also a collection of sorts, a film of sequences and moments more than a fully realised whole. 

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