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‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Is About to Become Gen-Z’s Favorite Cult Movie

Filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s addition to the midnight-movie canon starts with a shared love of a TV show — and then goes down the fandom rabbit hole

I Saw the TV Glow

Spencer Pazer/A24

Have you ever loved a TV show? Like, really loved it, to the point where your identity became wrapped up in it, where you engaged in life-or-death debates over characters and story arcs, strongest seasons and best episodes? Where the minutiae and the mythology of it became something between a shorthand language and a shared secret?

Jane Schoenbrun has; judging from their new film I Saw the TV Glow, their small-screen obsession of choice was the exact same as ours in the late ’90s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Big up Sunnydale, home of the Hellmouth!) The series worming its way into the hearts and memory banks of the movie’s misfits is called The Pink Opaque, and follows the adventures of two young women who meet at sleepaway camp, have a strong psychic bond and fight various monsters-of-the-week thrown at them by the resident Big Bad, a man on the moon named Mr. Melancholy. He wants to trap these young women in a netherworld called the Midnight Realm. It ran for five seasons before ending on an unresolved cliffhanger that left viewers in a state of permanent confusion. No petitions could resurrect it. We’re assuming the chat rooms back in the day were filled with the fury of a thousand kicked hornets’ nests.

The fact that Schoenbrun chose something iconic that mixed horror, fantasy, soap opera, empowerment and teen angst — not to mention something that’s now made many people reexamine the whole notion of showrunner power and patriarchal structures thanks to a lot of behind-the-scenes drama — as their template is telling. This is a movie about fandom before tribal us-and-them toxicity completely took over, and would have worked with any number of similarly beloved TV classics blessed with thick series bibles. But it’s also a film preoccupied with finding yourself, and then completely losing yourself within a pop-culture universe that offers an alternate reality preferable to one offscreen, and identity and loss were always key elements to the saga of a young woman slaying vampires. It was a cult show for a reason, in the same way that I Saw the TV Glow will end up speaking to a number of folks who will need something to call their own. Congratulations, Gen-Z, you’ve just been handed your new midnight-movie obsession.

Long before it became his reason for being, young Owen (Ian Foreman, who’s also great/heartbreaking in the upcoming Exhibiting Forgiveness) would stare in wonder at the commercials for The Pink Opaque. When he notices an older student reading the official episode guide in the school hallways after hours, he slowly approaches her. She’s Maddy (Brigitte Lundy-Paine). Isn’t that a children’s show?, he asks. No way, she replies. “It’s way too scary and the mythology is way too complicated for kids.” Besides, the series airs late on Saturday, past their bedtimes — and, it seems, past Owen’s as well. Maddy religiously watches it every week. Why doesn’t he make up a sleepover, come over to her house, and watch it with them?

Owen takes her up on the offer, and within the space of an hour (including commercial breaks), his life is forever changed. Soon, Maddy begins slipping him videotapes of past episodes. A few years after this gateway-drug moment, the older Owen (Justice Smith) still can’t muster the courage to say much to her. But they bond through these mysterious transmissions from another world. Later, when they do have a conversation while sitting on the school bleachers, he suggests they get together on Saturday to watch an episode together again. “I like girls… you know that right?” Maddy asks. He knows. Does Owen like girls or boys, she inquires. “I think I just like TV shows,” he meekly replies.

“Socially awkward” doesn’t begin to describe this duo. Neither of them have great home lives: Owen’s mother is ill and his father is a sort of free-floating malevolent presence, and Maddy makes a passing reference to the threat of her stepdad breaking her nose “again.” But they have their mutual love and need for The Pink Opaque. Then Maddy disappears, leaving nothing behind but a burning TV in her backyard. Time passes. When she and Owen meet again as twentysomethings, Maddy asks him if he remembers the show. Of course. But how does he remember it? Because she’s convinced it’s not just a work of fiction. It’s real, and they can go there. “This isn’t the Midnight Realm,” a freaked-out Owen tells her. “It’s the suburbs.”

That incendiary TV set, seemingly destroying itself from the inside out while framed against the darkness of night, is only one of a handful of images that gets burned into your brain. It’s also the key to what Schoenbrun is doing with this ode to the liberating and constricting power of escapism, which is using neon-to-nausea-inducing lighting, gliding camera movements and an arsenal of arresting images to conjure up a Pop Apocalyptic vibe. I Saw the TV Glow is as much a mood as it is a movie, but unlike the filmmaker’s previous work We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021) — which used an always-online mindset to suggest something like a paranormal possession parable in disguise — this particular methodology has graduated from bug to feature. The more Owen goes down the rabbit hole (which, given the movie’s look, is most likely guarded by this rabbit), the more surreal and unsettling everything gets. When was the last time you saw someone vomit up the white static that, back in pop culture’s Paleolithic era, signaled the end of your programming day?

There are definitely points where you, too, may feel you’re in danger of choking on aesthetics so heavily weighted for maximum atmospherics, even when those atmospherics give Glow so much of its nightmarish mojo. (It’s not a coincidence that the show within the film borrows its name from a Cocteau Twins album, given how well it replicates the sensation of listening to the band’s music; the distributor may be A24, but the beautiful, Goth-emotional tsunami on display is pure 4AD.) Yet more than most movies, midnight-appropriate or otherwise, this is a work purposefully designed to put you in a particular kind of fugue state. A colleague said he felt he’d been “swept into a dream” after seeing it, and that sense of REM-cycle unreality only makes the harshness of Owen waking up that much more destabilizing. Forget vampire slayers; nostalgia is what stakes you through the heart. Adulthood comes in the form of flatscreen TVs and public nervous breakdowns. The center cannot hold.

Yet, for a brief moment, a TV show or a movie can offer up a sense that you’re not alone — that kindred spirits are just a breathless recap or passed-along passion away. I Saw the TV Glow isn’t asking anyone to scream “long live the new flesh!” in the name of their old favorite serialized entertainment. But it asking you to look inside yourself and remember what it was like to feel seen by a work of art and its fellow devotees. And if you need a metaphorical box cutter to help you relocate the cathode-screen glow within, so be it.

From Rolling Stone US