Monday, April 29, 2024

I Saw the TV Glow

Sure, it was meant for kids, but Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark still holds up when you rewatch it as an adult. Or does it? That is the question Owen asks regarding the fictional teen horror series, The Pink Opaque. He has reason to wonder whether it was truly fictional or maybe really real in director-screenwriter Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Owen’s teen years were already depressing, even before his mother’s early death. After she succumbed to cancer, there was nobody left to intercede with his controlling and over-protective stepfather. He was fascinated by the idea of
The Pink Opaque, but forbidden to watch it, because it aired after his bedtime.

Maddy, a rebellious upperclassman, is a devoted fan, so she takes pity on Owen. After one special night watching the show together on live TV, she leaves him VHS recordings of the rest of the episodes as they air. Eventually,
The Pink Opaque is cancelled and Maddy runs away from home, leaving Owen to lead his lonely life of quiet desperation. Then one day, adult Owen comes face-to-face with Maddy, who will test his faith and his conception of reality.

By far, the coolest sequences in
I Saw the TV are those of the show-within-the-show, The Pink Opaque. It tells the story of Isabel and Tera, two friends who only met once at summer camp, but continue to fight the series’ evil villain, Mr. Melancholy, through their shared psychic link. Weirdly, the audience will start to care more about Tera and Isabel than Owen and Maddy. Perhaps that was ironically intentional, but it creates an awkward dramatic imbalance.

The concept of
The Pink Opaque and the potentially sinister role it might play in Owen and Maddy’s lives is deliciously intriguing, especially for fans of cult TV. Unfortunately, Schoenbrun is so determined not to make a conventional horror movie, The Pink Opaque’s potential for mind-bending scares is largely left to wither on the vine. Aesthetically and thematically, I Saw the TV is too much like Schoenbrun’s previous feature, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Essentially, both are hazy-looking meditations on social alienation masquerading as horror films.

Frustratingly, Justice Smith is so moody and listless as grown Owen, he practically disappears on-screen. It is a shame, because Brigette Lundy-Paine is forceful and maybe even a little scary as Maddy. Helena Howard and Lindsey Jordan have the right slightly cheesy 1990s vibe, but they are still admirably committed as Isabel and Tera. Even though Schoenbrun’s film does not really work, it would be highly entertaining to see them reprise these roles in a spinoff series.

Hopefully, in twenty or thirty years, a crasser, less stylistically ambitious filmmaker will remake
I Saw the TV Glow and better focus on the twisted possibilities of its premise. Maddeningly, Schoenbrun refuses to find the fun in nostalgia for 1990s teen horror, instead, doubling down on angst, while rubbing viewers’ noses in the characters’ supposed victimhood. Not recommended, I Saw the TV Glow opens this Friday (5/3) in theaters, including the AMC Lincoln Square in New York.