With theaters shuttered, televised spectacles will have to suffice. HBO presents “David Byrne’s American Utopia” (7 p.m. Saturday, TV-14), a filmed version of the hit Broadway production brought to the screen by director Spike Lee.
Similar to much of Byrne’s work, “Utopia” is thought-provoking even when it’s not exactly “fun.” And similar to too many of Lee’s efforts, “Utopia” manages to shoehorn some didactic sermonizing into the proceedings, a curious departure for Byrne, whose works largely have concerned art and not politics.
Still, the collaboration between the two artists raises interesting questions. When Byrne and his band, the Talking Heads, emerged in the late 1970s, they pointedly refused to be “rock” stars. Students from the Rhode Island School of Design, their look, their “act” and their lyrics reflected their status as college-educated white kids. Who else would cram high school French into a song about a “Psycho Killer”? Or muse that “Some civil servants are just like my loved ones”? They didn’t pretend to “sing the blues” or effect the kind of minstrelsy that had informed rock ‘n’ roll from its infancy.
In the early going, the Talking Heads could cover Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and still manage to make it sound like some minimalist art project, complete with Byrne’s spastic shrieks.
Later, in the 1980s, when the Heads adopted a “world music”-inspired sound, they looted African polyrhythms with the gusto of anthropology students, a departure some found exciting, others more than a little forced.
For his part, Spike Lee long has meditated on black culture and its appropriation. His 2000 epic “Bamboozled” offers a brilliant if overlong take on contemporary minstrel culture.
Unfortunately, “Utopia” does not reflect the best of either artist. Known for his striking cinematography and rich color palette, Lee serves up something decidedly monochromatic here. I can’t believe this wasn’t presented in black and white. It’s gray anyway. Byrne long has straddled the line between clever and “too clever.” “Utopia” tilts toward the latter, offering a jukebox filled with old favorites against the backdrop of an earnest TED Talk.
A critic smarter than me once slammed Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” as a musical written for the readers of The New York Times Arts & Leisure section. “David Byrne’s American Utopia” should be recycled as PBS pledge-drive programming. You deserve a tote bag just for watching.
• Small-town gossip looms large in the U.K. import “The Trouble With Maggie Cole” (7 p.m. Sunday, PBS, TV-14, check local listings). Dawn French (“French & Saunders”) stars in the title role, as the dowdy proprietor of a gift shop who fancies herself the local historian of a beautiful little town with legends dating back to medieval Britain.
Pleasant to look at and blessed with a game cast including Mark Heap, Julie Hesmondhalgh and up-and-comer Arthur McBain, “Maggie” is more than troubled by problematic pacing and tone.
— OK, that was weird. The least expected story of the week was the scandal involving Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”) and Lori Loughlin, star of “When Calls the Heart” (7 p.m. Sunday, Hallmark, TV-G), in a bribery/cheating plot to get their respective daughters into elite universities.
This is obviously an ongoing case, and all sides must have their say, or day, in court. But the motivation at the center of this story is worth discussing. It involves some overwhelming need to do anything to get children into elite schools. As if anything “lesser” were unthinkable.
Television plays no small role in this insecurity. I can’t remember how many times I’ve had to describe an ABC legal drama where every single character hails from only the most exclusive Ivy and spends most of the pilot bragging about it.
There was a time, not that long ago, when John Grisham wrote best-selling books about young, barely accredited lawyers from no-name institutions who took on impossible cases against massive corporations and eventually won. And got the girl, to boot.
So, our current era’s neurotic obsession with elitism and inequality is hardly hard-wired.
If anything comes of this sordid affair, it’s an appreciation that shoddy efforts at snobbery are always essentially pathetic. Or on classic TV, comedic. Watching “Gilligan’s Island,” we identified with Mary Ann and the Skipper, and pitied the millionaire and his wife.
— CNN launches the four-hour documentary “Tricky Dick” (8 p.m., Sunday), profiling the life and times of Richard Nixon’s public career, which spanned the decades from the dawn of the Cold War to the Clinton years.
— An anxious new mother joins a group for solidarity and support, only to discover that it has darker plans on its agenda in the 2019 shocker “Mommy Group Murder” (7 p.m., Lifetime, TV-14).
— The Thunder and Warriors meet in NBA action (7:30 p.m., ABC).
— An old kidnapper returns to form on “Ransom” (8 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
— Scheduled on “60 Minutes” (6 p.m., CBS): Embassy workers in China and Cuba complain of mysterious ailments; AOL founder Steve Case and his plans to invest in the future of overlooked American small towns and cities; a visit to Monaco.
— The duels begin on “World of Dance” (7 p.m., NBC, TV-PG).
— Auditions continue on “American Idol” (7 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
— Lex Luthor is on the loose on “Supergirl” (7 p.m., CW, TV-PG).
— Mr. Wednesday prepares for battle on “American Gods” (7 p.m., Starz, TV-MA).
— After learning about her royal lineage, an adopted 10-year-old becomes a little tyrant in the 2019 shocker “Mommy’s Little Princess” (7 p.m., Lifetime, TV-14).
— A secret room holds dangers on “Charmed” (8 p.m., CW, TV-14).
— Hidden secrets revealed on “The Walking Dead” (8 p.m., AMC, TV-MA).
— A new trial is pursued on “The Case Against Adnan Syed” (8 p.m., HBO, TV-14).
— Axe is determined to destroy Taylor on the fourth season premiere of “Billions” (8 p.m., Showtime, TV-MA).
— Ulysses pursues a conspiracy theory on “Now Apocalypse” (8 p.m., Starz, TV-MA).
— “Unsung” (8 p.m., TVONE) profiles the Jets.
— Pacific overtures on “Madam Secretary” (9 p.m., CBS, TV-PG).
— Tensions rise on “Good Girls” (9 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
— Mo’s past is revealed on “Black Monday” (9 p.m., Showtime, TV-MA).
— St. Patrick’s Day inspires many traditions. Syfy offers a marathon of “Leprechaun” movies, from “Leprechaun 5: In the Hood” (4 p.m. Saturday, TV-14) to “Leprechaun 2” (8 p.m.). TCM takes the traditional approach, ladling out the Technicolor blarney of director John Ford’s 1952 romance “The Quiet Man” (7 p.m. Sunday, TV-PG).
“Dateline” (7 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) ... “NBA Countdown” (7 p.m., ABC) ... The kids are all right on “MasterChef” (8 p.m., Fox, r, TV-PG) ... “48 Hours” (9 p.m., CBS) ... A vintage helping of “Saturday Night Live” (9 p.m., NBC, r, TV-14).
A visit from an old friend inspires Miles on “God Friended Me” (7 p.m., CBS, TV-PG) ... Homer can’t leave Bart’s virtual realm on “The Simpsons” (7 p.m., Fox, TV-14) ... Empathy for all things on “Bob’s Burgers” (7:30 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
A walk down the aisle on “NCIS: Los Angeles” (8 p.m., CBS, TV-14) ... On two episodes of “Family Guy” (Fox, TV-14), Meg’s winter Olympics (8 p.m.), fighting over a dowager (8:30 p.m., r) ... Aches and pains on “Shark Tank” (9 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).