Even in the Age of “Peak TV,” Television Doesn’t Quite Fit Into a Film Festival

TV has entered the rarified air of the celebrity-scented, big-box schmooze-fest that is the Toronto International Film Festival.

This year marked the second Primetime program at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), a showcase of “serial storytelling,” also known as TV. The program included sneak previews of two high-profile series (Transparent and Black Mirror, both premiering episodes from their upcoming third seasons) as well as lesser-known international fare from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Canada.

Primetime is an inevitable if curious byproduct of television’s “artistic renaissance,” as the program describes the contemporary TV boom, otherwise known as “peak TV.” As actors, producers, writers, and directors continue to praise television as the savior of independent cinema — and more filmmakers and performers make the move from the big screen to the small — TV has entered the rarified air of the celebrity-scented, big-box schmooze-fest that is TIFF. (TIFF isn’t the first festival to include a TV program; South by Southwest added one to its lineup in 2014.)

Whether it makes sense from a viewer standpoint to screen television at a film festival is another question.

Frankly, it felt weird to be watching TV at a film festival. A movie is a closed loop: it begins and an hour and a half or two or three hours later, it ends. Part of the pleasure of sitting in a dark theater watching a movie is the total immersion of the experience; the lights go down, and — if the movie is good — when they come up you feel changed, like emerging from baptismal waters, if you want to be dramatic about it.

But the serial format of TV makes it harder to watch a show the way you would a film, from beginning to end, without interruption. As much as I enjoyed most of the actual content of the series in the Primetime program, I wasn’t nearly as affected by them as I was by some of the films I saw at the festival.

First on the docket was an eight-episode HBO Europe mini-series from the Czech Republic called Wasteland — all eight hours of it, back to back, with two twenty-minute breaks. The series centers on the mayor of Pustina, a small mining town threatened with extinction when the mining company wants to expand its operations. When the mayor’s 14-year-old daughter goes missing, this sets in motion a mystery-thriller involving the girl’s bipolar father, a band of local drug pushers, pimps, and prostitutes, and the town’s ramshackle juvenile detention center.

Wasteland/TIFF
Wasteland/TIFF

Wasteland is a hard pill to swallow all at once: Grey, bleak, and tense, and with long stretches in the middle that play like filler meant to kill time until the big revelation at the end. Had I been following this series week by week, the tension of the mystery and promise of resolution might compel me to keep tuning in. Sitting down to watch all eight hours at once, I found myself getting restless and even bored: We know the twist is coming; let’s get to it already so I can go to the bathroom. Wasteland is not a bad series, but watching it at the festival was a punishing experience — less binge-watching than force-feeding. Even the show’s creator was impressed by the amount of people who stayed until the end.

The rest of Primetime was a tasting menu. The program screened the first three episodes of Transparent’s third season, which will be available on Amazon Prime on Friday; three half-hour episodes from the middle of the first season of nirvanna the band the show, a half-hour Canadian comedy airing on Viceland in 2017; two hour-long episodes from Black Mirror’s third season, streaming on Netflix in October; and two episodes of the Kenyan web series Tuko Macho.

The inclusion of Transparent and Black Mirror follows the TIFF tradition of giving a platform to blockbusters that will do just fine without the festival buzz (the opening film this year was Antoine Fuqua’s star-studded remake of The Magnificent Seven, out this week). The new episodes of both series were terrific, but given that both will be available to stream online within the next few weeks — and that both are already highly anticipated, critically lauded series — their inclusion in the festival felt a bit beside the point.

Transparent/TIFF
Transparent/TIFF

Incorporating ambitious, visually rich TV series in a popular film festival may seem like a natural step in TV’s climb up the pop culture ladder. But as more of us watch TV on our own schedule and our own devices, watching a movie in a theater is one of the few communal artistic experiences that remain accessible to most people in most parts of the world. Maybe it’s not so bad to keep film in the cinema and television in our living rooms. I want to go out to a movie, but I want to come home to TV.