What do you watch on that thing called TV?

That’s become an increasingly difficult question in the ever-widening landscape — a vast wonderland some might call it — that is television.

“Every year we are having conversations about what ‘TV’ means,” says Sam Flancher.

By “we” he means his colleagues at the Chicago International Film Festival. He is the competitions coordinator of the CIFF. Though television shows and TV ads have been part of that festival’s schedule since it began in — hard to believe — 1965, it was not until last year that there came a need to create the Chicago International Television Festival.

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“Submissions were ever-expanding in number and quality,” says Flancher. “It came time to expand the festival and its scope.”

The centerpiece of this year’s event is March 23, when industry folks will gather to receive (and watch others receive) some 50 awards in various categories for their work in television productions and commercials.

There also will be special awards presented to Dean Richards, the inexhaustible entertainment reporter/critic for WGN radio and television, commercial producer/director Joe Sedelmaier and Amazon Studios, which only having become a TV player in 2010 has been coming on very strong with such offerings as “Transparent,” “Mozart in the Jungle” and “Patriot.”

The public is invited to that party, at least those members of the public with $75 to spare. But even those without a nickel in their pockets can avail themselves of what the festival offers.

Four shows will be screened over two days — March 21-22 — at the AMC River East movie complex, 322 E. Illinois St. RSVP tickets are free and can be had at www.chicagofilmfestival.com/television-festival.

“We selected shows with strong Chicago connections,” says Flancher.

They did a fine job, and here are those selections:

“Public Housing Unit” (6 p.m. March 21): A lot of TV shows are filmed here, among them that Dick Wolf quartet of “Chicago Fire,” Chicago Med,” “Chicago P.D.” and, most recently, “Chicago Justice.” Not as slick, not as star-studded, this show is the equal of any of them.

Set in the 1980s, before most of Chicago’s public housing fell to the wrecking balls and when such complexes represented a lawless and all-but-hopeless landscape, it focuses on three members of a Chicago Police Department team dealing with the violence, drugs and the desperation that shadows the lives those they are attempting to serve and protect. Starring Chris Boykin, Ira Amyx and Kamal Bolden as the cops, the show is unflinching. The dialogue — by screenwriter Patrick Wimp — is tough and true and the rest of the cast brings a palpable authenticity to their roles, as when one explains his life of crime by saying with pragmatic matter-of-factness, “If I don’t hustle, I don’t eat.”

Each of the cops, who occasionally speak inner thoughts directly to the camera, are involved with life complications that extend beyond their shifts; some romantic, some familial and others political. Directed by Chicago native Dan Willis, this is a show that demands and satisfies our attention and deserves a TV future. You’ll hear from members of the cast and creative team at the screening.

“American Playboy” (8 p.m. March 21): This is also a world premiere, a screening of one of the 10 — count them, 10 — episodes of the upcoming Amazon Video series on the life and times of Hugh Hefner. This episode centers on the publisher’s arrest (and subsequent legal battles; he was acquitted) on obscenity charges in the summer of 1963 for photos of buxom movie star Jayne Mansfield published in his magazine. The series is a docudrama, meaning that it balances documentary footage with recreated scenes. That archival footage is stunning and surprising, understandable when you learn that it represents the first time the 90-year-old Hefner has allowed full access to his personal and massive historical files. Starring as Hefner is Matt Whelan, a little too brooding in this episode but otherwise a good cinematic match for Hef. The episode also features the opening of the lavish Playboy Club in Manhattan (and some political shenanigans — i.e. bribery — involved therein) as well as the birth of the Hefner-written Playboy Philosophy and of the Playboy Interview (jazzman Miles Davis was its first) in the magazine. There is an admirable restraint when it comes to talking heads — among them Hefner from long ago interviews, comic Dick Gregory and Jesse Jackson — and some nudity (would you expected anything less?).

Executive producers Steven David and Peter Jaysen (he a child of Highland Park) will be joined by Hefner’s youngest child, 25-year-old Cooper, at the event. (I will have a full review of the entire series in the April 4 edition of the Tribune.)

“When the Street Lights Go On” (6 p.m. March 22): This was originally commissioned by Hulu, which chose not to carry on beyond this pilot episode that had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

It starts with a bang: The shooting deaths of a high school teacher and the comely cheerleader/student with whom he is getting high and making out.

Set in 1983 in one of those seeming perfect little, tree-lined, fresh-faced towns, this one named Colfax, the story comes at us through the narrated viewpoint of a 15-year-old named Charlie (Max Burkholder), who discovers the bodies on his bike ride home and tells us that this event was one that “robbed us of our youth.”

The town is understandably shaken as a grizzled police chief (Graham Beckel) goes about the business of trying to solve the case. There are a number of suspects, most prominently a sullen teenager (Adam Long), a young man from the wild side of the tracks with a criminal record. The mostly young cast performs ably.

Very atmospheric and shot more like a feature film than TV show — a line getting very thin these days — it’s directed by Brett Morgen, who did fine work with 2002’s “The Kid Stays In The Picture” and 2007’s “Chicago 10.” Watching it, you’ll undoubtedly be reminded of such films as “Stand By Me” and, depending on your age, enjoy the soundtrack, which ends satisfyingly with local rock star Dennis DeYoung’s “Come Sail Away.”

The show was co-written by Chris Hutton and Eddie O’Keefe, the former a Columbia College graduate, and both will be in attendance to lead a discussion after the screening.

“Crashing” (8 p.m. March 22): Star Pete Holmes considers himself extremely “lucky to have met with but also been able to pitch an idea to” Judd Apatow, the comic writing/directing legend behind such hits as TV’s “Girls” and the movie “The 40-Year-OldVirgin.” Indeed, because Apatow serves as the executive producer of this charming, funny and a little bit sad new eight-part series that began running on HBO in February (www.hbo.com/crashing).

Basically, Holmes plays a semi-autobiographical version of himself, a struggling stand-up comedian who moves out of his comfy suburban home after finding his wife with another man. He moves to New York City and winds up “crashing” at friends houses as he tries to find his way to stand-up success.

The real Pete Holmes is a successful 37-year-old comic and writer, best know perhaps for his podcast, “You Made It Weird” and a short-lived TBS talk show titled “The Pete Holmes Show.”

This yet-to-be-seen-on-TV “Crashing” episode finds Holmes bunking down at the home of comic Sarah Silverman, caustically charming as ever. Pete’s only there for one night because, in a most unlikely but amusing fashion, he winds up getting a job as the warm-up act on Rachel Ray’s TV show and Silverman makes him move into a hotel.

The show is not the laugh that “Seinfeld” was (and still is), but there is such a self-effacing charm to Holmes that he makes it all work. One does not feel any defeatism in him but rather compassion in sharing his series of little victories, well earned.

Holmes will be present to chat at the screening and will, he says, “be more than willing to talk about the differences between stand-up and TV.”

rkogan@chicagotribune.com

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