A key line in the first episode of Casual is this: "Let's not ruin this with conversation."
Thing is, Casual is mostly about conversation. That's why the line is key. It's all sly, elliptical dialogue in a brittle, dark comedy about family, narcissism and the intricate dynamics of finding support and succour outside of your immediate relatives. The executive producer and director is Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno), who collaborates with writer Zander Lehmann for the series.
In it, divorced mom Valerie (Michaela Watkins) tries to rediscover herself while living with her brother (Tommy Dewey) and teenage daughter (Tara Lynne Barr). It's finely small-scale and droll.
It is also the first TV production to be screened at TIFF's Primetime program. On its 40th anniversary, the Toronto Festival is letting a little TV in the door. Why? Well, there's this from Piers Handling, director and chief executive officer of TIFF: "What better way to celebrate our 40th anniversary than with a programme that focuses on the new golden era of television that's currently producing high-quality global programming, terrific writing and direction that rivals the best feature filmmaking?"
That's nice. But what could possibly be the point? Apart from token, grudging acknowledgment that television is the defining storytelling medium of the 21st century? One suspects it's a gambit to get people into a movie theatre, to see TV on a big screen, now that so many people find the best of TV more compelling than film. Or, who knows, maybe the TIFF schedule is less-than-bulging this year?
All the public gets at TIFF is a wee taste of a good TV series. Seeing two 35-minute episodes of a subtle, single-camera comedy in a movie theatre is not going to enhance the experience of Casual, the TV series. (It was made for streaming service Hulu, not available in Canada, but will probably turn up on a service here.) The relationship between the viewer and the TV series is intimate, always, and far removed from the tribal act of gathering among strangers at a movie theatre to see a film. By the way, Casual isn't cinematic in the least and benefits from that.
Les Revenants (The Returned) is also in the Primetime program. What people will see is episodes of the second season of a French series about a group of people who were once declared dead but have since reappeared back on Earth as living, breathing humans. It's derived from a 2004 French film titled They Came Back (Les Revenants, too, in French), and it is a sublime series. Airing in French with English subtitles on the Sundance Channel two years ago, it was lauded as one of the best TV events of the year. Set mainly in a small mountain town, there's a subdued cinematic quality. But, again, the true experience of Les Revenants is cumulative, episode by episode. And a few hours in a movie theatre cannot approach that.
A better bet in the Primetime program is the Netflix documentary Keith Richards: Under the Influence. (It streams on Netflix starting Sept. 18th.) Made by Academy Award-winner Morgan Neville, it's a nicely crafted portrait film of Richards – mainly about the American music that influenced him – as he works on a new solo album.
From what can be seen in advance of the Argentine production Cromo, it's wildly cinematic. Essentially an eco-thriller, it's about scientists exposing environmental crimes in the spectacular terrain of northern Argentina. But only three episodes are screening, which means a glimpse of a substantial work.
Trapped, from Iceland, is another thriller and the setting is dramatic. One sees a theme here in the TV picks for Primetime – if there's a stunning landscape involved, the show might look nice on a big movie-theatre screen. It will air on one of the BBC channels later and the BBC head of programme acquisition said, "A truly gripping storyline, stunning Icelandic setting and renowned feature film director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest) was a combination impossible to resist."
The most head-scratching inclusion in Primetime is Heroes Reborn, NBC's reboot of the briefly popular 2006 series Heroes. You can watch some of it at TIFF or the two-hour premiere on NBC and Global on Sept. 24. A new story with new characters and some returning ones, it still sticks to its original premise – a diverse group of people with special powers unite through a strange kindred spirit and set out to save the world from those with special powers who have evil intent.
In its initial version, it was comic-book content raised to an unusual level of sophistication, especially in its first season, which was glorious. Then it ran out of steam. A reboot could be great or lapse into all the faults of the first version. Fact is, Heroes Reborn belongs at ComiCon, not at TIFF. And the entire Primetime program is a waste of TIFF space.