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Mental Health at the Movies: “I Saw the TV Glow”

Lights! Camera! Action! Welcome to your Monday Mental Health Moment at the movies, a series discussing the intersection of psychology and cinema. Some spoilers ahead…

I Saw the TV Glow follows the life of Owen, a suburban loner who befriends another social outcast, Maddy, through their shared love of the TV show The Pink Opaque. This fictional show calls back to nostalgic hits like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Secret World of Alex Mack - all stories in which kids and teens are imbued with some kind of power or awareness of realities beyond everyday comprehension. 

Through the film’s metaphors of cheesy 90s pop culture, it tells a story about the horrors faced in growing up; the alteration of memory over time, the abandonment of wonder for pragmatics and the monotony of everyday life when we don’t actively question who we are and why are we doing what we’re doing. Director Jane Schoenbrun shared how I Saw the TV Glow was born from their trans experience, and how the film is intended to connect with anyone who has repressed parts of themselves in order to survive. Using the Monster of the Week trope as an homage to its TV inspirations, the film deliriously depicts Owen’s sense of reality as feverish and accelerating:

Time wasn't right. It was moving too fast. And then I was 19. And then I was 20. I felt like one of those dolls asleep in the supermarket. Stuffed. And then I was 21. Like chapters skipped over on a DVD. I told myself, “This isn't normal. This isn't normal. This isn't how life is supposed to feel.”

This is not just an Inception-style plot device. There is actually a shared phenomenon of time speeding up as people age, some academics attribute this to the physics of neural signal processing in our brains. Professor Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, argues the following explanation of why times moves faster as we age:

As we age… the size and complexity of the networks of neurons in our brains increases – electrical signals must traverse greater distances and thus signal processing takes more time. Moreover, aging causes our nerves to accumulate damage that provides resistance to the flow of electric signals, further slowing processing time… slower processing times result in us perceiving fewer ‘frames-per-second’ – more actual time passes between the perception of each new mental image. This is what leads to time passing more rapidly. When we are young, each second of actual time is packed with many more mental images. Like a slow-motion camera that captures thousands of images per second, time appears to pass more slowly.

Have you ever had the feeling of just needing to figure out the obstacle of your day/week/year for it to all be okay? But then the obstacles never cease and you realize in bursts of painful insight that time is actually flying by. Therapy sessions can even sometimes feel like a “Monster of the Week” revolving door. So what do you do when time passes and you’re still afraid? 

Take a lesson from the sidewalk chalk drawing near the end of the film reading THERE IS STILL TIME. There is still time to discover new parts of yourself, to dream new things, to learn and to transform past what you are needed to be by others and society. No matter what your age, there are still mysteries inside you underneath the mask you show the world. So peel open the tender layers of your heart and see what shines out. It’s never too late.


Hillary Brown, LICSW is an adaptive and playful therapist interested in helping her clients improve their interpersonal relationships as well as their relationship with themself. Hillary is unapologetically fat-friendly, LGBTQ+ affirming, and committed to noticing the systemic stressors of our world that can exacerbate mental health symptoms. Together with her client, Hillary detects what changes can be made within them and around them, while fostering resiliency and hope during times of disempowerment in oppression. Hillary believes that priorities do not have to be competing with one another and instead can find a harmonious balance through boundaries, awareness-building and self-compassion.

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