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Byrne puts the 'meh' in 'American Utopia'

Byrne puts the 'meh' in 'American Utopia'

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With theaters shuttered, televised spectacles will have to suffice. HBO presents “David Byrne’s American Utopia” (7 p.m., TV-14), a filmed version of the hit Broadway production brought to the screen by director Spike Lee.

Like much of Byrne’s work, “Utopia” is thought-provoking even when it’s not exactly “fun.” And like too many of Lee’s efforts, “Utopia” manages to shoehorn some didactic sermonizing into the proceedings, a curious departure for Byrne, whose works have largely 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 has long 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 has long 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.

Other highlights

College football action includes Florida State and North Carolina (6:30 p.m., ABC), and Georgia at Alabama (7 p.m., CBS).

A teen and her father face the wrath of “The Wrong Cheerleader Coach” (7 p.m., Lifetime, TV-14).

An Indonesian volcano spurts blue fire on “What on Earth?” (7 p.m., Science, TV-PG).

A busy woman and a handsome maple syrup farmer become heirs to a candy concern in the 2020 romance “Sweet Autumn” (8 p.m., Hallmark, TV-G).

Issa Rae hosts “Saturday Night Live” (10:30 p.m., NBC, TV-14), featuring a performance by Justin Bieber.

Cult choice

James Caan, John Houseman and Maud Adams star in the 1975 shocker “Rollerball” (4:45 p.m. , TCM, TV-14), set in a future world where a violent corporate spectacle captivates millions.

Series notes

Jane Lynch hosts “Weakest Link” (7 p.m., NBC, r, TV-PG) ... “The Masked Singer” (7 p.m., Fox, r, TV-14) ... “Ellen’s Game of Games” (8 p.m., NBC, r, TV-PG) ... “I Can See Your Voice” (7 p.m., Fox, r, TV-PG) ... A vintage helping of “Saturday Night Live” (9 p.m., NBC, r, TV-14).

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