‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Review: How We Used to Escape (2024)

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Critic’s Pick

An outstanding not-quite-horror film about being a fan just before the internet took over.

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‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Review: How We Used to Escape (1)

By Alissa Wilkinson

I Saw the TV Glow
NYT Critic’s Pick
Directed by Jane Schoenbrun
Drama, Horror
PG-13
1h 40m

We’ve forgotten how hard being a fan used to be. You had to labor at it in multiple media: scouring listings and keeping tabs on schedules, reading books of lore and compiling episode recaps. Pop culture was built around presence, real physical presence: To see the latest episode of “The X-Files” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” you had to show up at your TV when it aired. If you missed a key episode, you were out of luck, unless someone remembered to tape it for you, at least until it went into reruns or syndication. And if your taste ran to the niche, discovering that someone else loved the same thing you loved felt revelatory, like you’d stumbled upon a person who spoke a language only you could understand.

The social internet, algorithms and streaming blew most of this up, shoving our favorites at us and making them available all the time. Some of the magic disappeared as well, the uncanny immersive quality. You can bury yourself in a binge-watch for a day or a week, but then it’s over, no long in-between stretches to hash out each episode. Sustaining a relationship with the world a show built is still possible; connecting with others over your shared love is preposterously easy. Something, however, has been lost.

“I Saw the TV Glow” captures this obsessive, anticipatory submersion in a long-form weekly TV show, to the point where it ignites the same feeling. A lot of movies tell you stories, but the films of the writer and director Jane Schoenbrun evoke them; to borrow a term, they’re a vibe. Like “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” Schoenbrun’s previous film, this one isn’t quite horror, but it gives you the same kind of scalp crawl. In this case I think it’s the mark of recognition, of feeling a tug at your subconscious. It’s oddly hard to put into words.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” was the tale of a lonely teenager living in the oddness of our internet era, where intimacy is free and plentiful and confusing and could be dangerous, or could be banal. “I Saw the TV Glow” dials that same tone back a generation, centering on a couple of lonely teenagers who find one another through a show called “The Pink Opaque.” It’s a mash-up show, instantly recognizable in its own way: It airs on something called the Young Adult Network (clearly a stand-in for The WB, the teen-focused TV network that turned into The CW) at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday nights, a time reserved for shows barely hanging on by a thread. The opening credits we glimpse suggest the show is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”-adjacent (it even uses the same typeface), but with elements reminiscent of “The X-Files” and “Twin Peaks” — in all these cases, not exactly horror, but not quite anything else. (There’s also a band in the show, one that apparently performs a song in every episode, which plays expertly tuned mid-90s teen-show music; the musicians are Phoebe Bridgers and Haley Dahl.)

“I Saw the TV Glow” is set in 1996, right at the moment when entertainment was about to dive over the cliff and become what media theorists sometimes refer to as convergence culture. Back then, TV was still a few years away from being participatory for most youthful viewers. The internet wasn’t mature enough yet for the majority of teens to really haunt it, and those who did were posting on the kinds of message boards and websites that would eventually come to define both the TV and the fan-driven internet of the early aughts. (“The X-Files,” for instance, which premiered in 1993, was one of the first shows with a developed online fandom; they communicated through a Usenet newsgroup.) If you knew how to find message boards and chat rooms, you might have bonded with other fans. But if you were just a kid at home in the suburbs, you were most likely planning your schedule around episodes.

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‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Review: How We Used to Escape (2024)
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