There are many reasons why I don’t bother with letter grades or numerical scores in my reviews. I Saw the TV Glow is now the latest one.

The premise begins with “The Pink Opaque”, a stand-in for the likes of “Eerie, Indiana”, “The Secret World of Alex Mack”, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”, and other such supernatural kids’ shows from the ’90s that aired on cable TV in time slots after the fourth-graders had all gone to bed. The basic gist of the show concerns a couple of girls who met at summer camp and go on to fight a different monster of the week. The gimmick is that they never meet up in person, but use a psychic link to coordinate their efforts across the county.

(Side note: If you know who Michael C. Maronna and Danny Tamberelli are, you’ll know exactly why they make a cameo appearance here. Because there’s literally no other reason and they do literally nothing except for showing up.)

We lay our scene in some generic suburb in the year 1996. This is where and when we meet Owen, played as a middle schooler by Ian Foreman and from high school onwards by Justice Smith. Owen is a socially awkward kid who doesn’t seem to have much of any friends, and his development is stilted at every turn by his overbearing father (played by Fred Durst, of all people).

Enter Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), an antisocial misfit who’s pretty much built her entire personality around “The Pink Opaque”. Owen takes an interest in something relatively harmless that his parents wouldn’t approve of, and Maddy wants someone else to share her interest with, so they strike up a friendship based on their love of the TV show. Things take a sharp turn when “The Pink Opaque” is cancelled (on a cliffhanger, natch) at almost the exact same time when Maddy disappears under peculiar circumstances.

Cut to eight years later, when Maddy suddenly and inexplicably reappears. And we’re off to the races. Halfway into the movie.

To address the elephant in the room, it’s honestly kind of unfortunate that this movie wasn’t made in time to factor in Quiet on the Set. The film was made to comment on an era of Nickelodeon shows that’s taken on a much darker significance over the past few months. I still haven’t seen the documentary — I don’t know if I ever will — so I don’t have any problem watching the film removed from that additional context the filmmakers never could’ve predicted or accounted for. Even so, Quiet on the Set was such a seismic bombshell for so many in the target audience of this movie, it’s worth taking into consideration.

That aside, the movie is undeniably gorgeous. The shot compositions are dazzling. The soundtrack fucking slaps. The use of color is spellbinding. And of course the ’90s aesthetic is perfectly on point. Kudos are also due to Brigette Lundy-Paine, who does a phenomenal job selling the batshit lunacy of the film. Which is truly a blessing, because Justice Smith is sadly unequal to the task.

I’m one of the rare few who genuinely liked The American Society of Magical Negroes, and I will readily admit that Justice Smith is an actor of shockingly limited range. Smith is the kind of actor who only does one highly specific thing and does it exceedingly well: If you want a moderately attractive young man of ambiguous race who’s anxious and neurotic because he’s constantly in over his head, Justice Smith is your guy. Anything more than that or other than that and he’s next to worthless. Case in point: In this movie, Smith — who’s pushing 30 as of this typing — is called upon to play a character from age 15 to age 45. He can’t sell it.

Then again, the very nature of Owen doesn’t exactly help. The basic gist of Owen is that he doesn’t have any friends or teachers or family who can help Owen figure himself out, so he looks to find his identity in a TV show. Even if it’s supposedly a show for kids, even if it’s a show that’s supposedly for girls, it’s still a TV show that really speaks to Owen and makes him feel seen like nothing else does, and that’s sacred. Nobody can take that away from him.

On paper, it’s a fine premise. In practice, there are so many reasons why it doesn’t work.

First of all, the film is frustratingly vague about exactly who and what Owen is. It’s ambiguous as to whether Owen is autistic, chronically traumatized by a dysfunctional upbringing, some combination of the two, or something else entirely. It’s implied that Owen may not be straight, but we never get a definitive answer one way or another. Perhaps most importantly, Owen starts the movie as a miserable teenager and he ends the movie as a miserable adult. At no point in the movie do we get any concrete evidence that “The Pink Opaque” has demonstrably improved Owen’s life or self-worth or sense of identity in any visible way. Except maybe for his relationship with Maddy, and even that’s debatable.

The other huge factors here are the pacing and the editing. From start to finish, this is a movie far more interested in establishing a mood than in making any kind of coherent sense. The film spends so much time and energy building up the creepy bi-colored surreal vibes that the plot doesn’t really get going until the halfway point and all the most important developments are crammed into the third act. As a direct result, the movie doesn’t really have the time or space to make any kind of coherent point out of all the different ideas getting brought up.

Yes, Mx. Schoenbrun, a lot of our old favorite childhood TV shows aren’t as awesome or scary or profound as we remember them. I grew up as a Power Rangers kid — I know from deep-seated personal experience what it’s like to look back at a time when I thought this was the peak of entertainment. That’s a massively complex stew of emotions demanding far more time and attention than thirty seconds crammed into the closing minutes of your movie.

Which brings me to the editing. Specifically, the film is spliced together in such a way that it’s borderline impossible to tell what’s supposed to be really happening and what’s merely fantasy. Yes, I understand the value in an unreliable narrator. Yes, I can respect a story that leaves a degree of freedom for audience interpretation. But a little ambiguity goes a long way, and too much of it can blow your themes wide open.

For instance, I get the central question of whether it’s better to live in mundane reality or to live out a power fantasy. But that question depends on whether or not the power fantasy is really an option. Because if it isn’t, and the power fantasy is nothing more than the product of a deluded imagination, the question is effectively moot.

Ultimately, I Saw the TV Glow is a film I respect far more than I like. I admire how the film has such a unique — and gobsmackingly beautiful — look and feel to it. I genuinely love how the film perfectly captures the attitude and trauma of an elder millennial who came of age just in time for 9/11 and the Great Recession to fuck everything up and turn the world into something much different than what we were promised.

All that said, this is very much a film more interested in vibes and atmosphere than in making a statement. I know there are a lot of filmgoers and cinephiles out there who prefer vibes and atmosphere at the expense of making a coherent point — and I expect they will love this picture to the moon and back — but I could never bring myself to agree.

Sorry, but if you see this movie, I can only hope you enjoy it more than I did.


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