TIFF this, TIFF that. It's all TIFF in this neck of the woods, for the first few days of the film festival anyway. It seems so all-consuming in the media that it's inevitable TIFF will try to consume television too.
The Toronto International Film Festival's Primetime program, devoted to TV, has been going for a few years now. And one supposes it will stay there, since the whole world knows that the best of television storytelling is far more culturally significant and relevant than 99 per cent of the films made and released these days.
Still, it is just a slice of the entire festival and a small slice at that. Like a lot of things to do with TIFF, the television segment seems to hinge on getting some stars into Toronto for a few days and sucking up attention. Thing is, a great deal of excellent TV is made. It's hard to keep up with it, even when it's your job to do so. Don't get me started. Thus what TIFF offers is a small, eccentric selection of productions that will be screened a couple of times in a cinema. It isn't by any means a reflection of the very best of TV right now. It can't be, nor was it meant to be.
This year's selection has this summary line on the TIFF website: "Serial storytelling: television in its artistic renaissance." This is odd, since "renaissance" suggests a rebirth or revival and that is emphatically not the case with TV. There was a time in its earliest incarnation when commercial TV in the United States and Britain broadcast live plays, whether by Shakespeare or a more contemporary dramatist. It is ridiculous to think of that as a lost or long-ago age when TV had artistic merits. It was theatre being thrown onto television. It was never about television storytelling – an endeavour and style particular to the medium. It was about foisting the art of theatre onto it. What has happened over the past two decades is vastly different.
The five selections for this year's Primetime program at TIFF are a mixed bag of things. All good TV, probably, but not necessarily representing the pinnacle of quality or indeed the height of cultural relevance. Most simply fit nicely with the TIFF ambience.
Sarah Polley's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel will get a full review when it airs on CBC and everyone can see it. A "CBC original," and with involvement from Netflix – which will stream it in other markets – it arrives at a fortuitous time. However, the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale is, for many people, the cultural event of 2017 and the impact of Alias Grace will likely pale in comparison. It's a period piece, very 19th-century Canada and packed with familiar Canadian actors. What might make it truly impactful – and this is without reviewing its substance – is an audaciously seething performance by Sarah Gadon as the title character, Grace Marks. Grace is accused of murder and it's Gadon's job to convey the inner workings of her mind, which she does with power. You can't take your eyes off her. Whatever else might be happening in the multihour miniseries, Gadon enters your head and stays there.
This Netflix drama from Germany is the work of two acclaimed filmmakers, Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. (I was offered an interview with the makers without being offered access to the production, which is a very TIFF thing to do.) All one knows about it in advance is that it's described as "a chilling supernatural family drama." And that it opens with a quotation from Albert Einstein – "The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." A nuclear plant is about to close, peculiar things happen and children disappear. From the trailer it looks gorgeous and spooky. All I know.
The David Simon and George Pelecanos series has already been reviewed by yours truly – it is a wonderfully textured, Balzac-esque panorama of life on the seedy sidelines of New York in 1971. It's about pimps, sex workers and would-be pornographers. Life on the margins of a filthy, falling-apart urban space. And it is emphatically a work of television – lacking in melodrama and attuned to the beat of the best of contemporary TV storytelling. James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal are the presumed stars, but this is about a subset of society, not about the characters played by the movie stars. Two episodes are being screened.
The Girlfriend Experience, Season 2
The first season of The Girlfriend Experience was a stunner, a disquieting examination of sex as transaction and a study of the sort of mind that truly understands how sex sells. Thrillingly good and coolly repulsive, it was created by Steven Soderbergh, along with personally chosen cohorts Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. Now Seimetz and Kerrigan take over with a new set of characters and a new setting. It was not available for review, but if it adheres to the tone of the first season, it is the most adult-minded of shows, about young women who are not sex workers exactly, but offer the complete girlfriend thing – sex and acquaintanceship. The first season had a breathtakingly wintry quality, about as far from the norms of eroticism as you can get.
This Brazilian series is derived from a movie and is set at a public hospital in a Rio de Janeiro favela. The central character, surgeon Evandro (Julio Andrade), is a damaged do-gooder. The series opens in high drama as he insists on operating on his own wife after she's injured in a car crash. It doesn't work out – he is burdened by the memory, becomes drug-addicted and puts all his effort and drive into saving as many poverty-stricken patients as possible. It is well-made and surges with the blood-and-guts atmosphere of the favela. The TIFF description mentions "thoughtful writing and endearing performances," and that is accurate. It is a sort of high-grade telenovela with a dark soul. From the episodes provided it seems to resemble a superior set of episodes from ER, that NBC hospital drama. It just has more raw grit. (For more information, see tiff.net/tiff.)