I Saw the TV Glow Is a Nightmare Drenched in Neon and Nostalgia

I Saw the TV Glow Is a Nightmare Drenched in Neon and Nostalgia

The unreliable haze of nostalgia, the intoxicating connection that comes from a shared obsessive fandom, and the tricks the mind plays to shield us from unbearable truths all come into play in I Saw the TV Glow, the latest psychological horror movie from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun.

I Saw the TV Glow shares some DNA with Schoenbrun’s 2021 feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which followed a lonely teen who becomes fixated on participating in a viral challenge that then begins to bleed from the internet into her reality. The two films also share a similar neon-against-the-darkness color scheme. But I Saw the TV Glow is far more ambitious in scope, spanning decades and prying into surprisingly wrenching territory—with a supernatural TV series called The Pink Opaque, and a complicated friendship that forms because of it, at its core.

Image: A24

Justice Smith—usually seen in roles that place him against a much bigger canvas, including Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves—is excellent as Owen, who we follow from junior high to middle-age but barely seems to evolve emotionally; he’s stuffed with longing and terror, a dichotomy that pulls him between doing what he wants and just trying to keep his head down. Just as he’s getting interested in The Pink Opaque—he’s curious about it, but not allowed to watch because it airs past his strict bedtime—he meets the slightly older Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine of Atypical and Bill & Ted Face the Music) as she’s paging through the show’s official guidebook. They’re both misfits and she recognizes something kindred in him; before long he’s making up sleepover cover stories to watch Saturday night airings of The Pink Opaque at her house. Later, she makes VHS tapes so he can keep up to date on the series; it forms the entire thrust of their relationship.

The Pink Opaque itself is about an unusually bonded duo: two girls who meet at summer camp, discover they have a psychic connection, then fight against evil together using their minds despite being physically apart from each other. Though the villains we see are mostly corny (a deranged ice cream man, a spooky clown), the “big bad,” as Maddy solemnly educates Owen, is known as Mr. Melancholy. He has the ability to alter time and reality and seeks to entrap his foes in the unpleasant-sounding “Midnight Realm.”

Photo: Spencer Pazer/A24

Escaping to a fantasy world is an important crutch for Maddy and Owen, both of whom have home lives tinged with the ever-present threat of violence from their father figures. “Sometimes The Pink Opaque feels more real than real life” is an important sentiment uttered early on, as is the idea that something “can’t hurt you if you don’t think about it.” As we follow the divergent paths Maddy and Owen take, the story also leans into its meta elements, with narration that breaks the fourth wall and the increasing sense, as Owen grows older, that perhaps his favorite TV show did have hidden meaning lurking just below its monster-of-the-week drama.

When Maddy unexpectedly re-enters his life and asks him how he remembers The Pink Opaque—as just a TV show, or something… more?—he’s thrown into a spin. It’s in the film’s final act that I Saw the TV Glow really challenges the viewer, positing that it’s entirely possible that the fabric of reality is being shredded by a version of Mr. Melancholy who’s passed through the screen. Or, it could be a movie about two people who endured horrible childhoods and are now realizing how that trauma’s hitched a ride into their adult years. Perhaps it’s a bit of both—wrapped in dazzling visuals and set in a world where existence can be awkward and agonizing, but where moments of wonder appear in surprising places.

I Saw the TV Glow is now in theaters.


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