While the Olympians continue to dominate the TV spotlight in Sochi, another gathering of championship talent takes a bow in the weekend's other gold-medal event: PBS's Great Performances presentation of National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage (Friday, 9/8c, check tvguide.com listings).
Laurence Olivier led the National Theatre upon its founding in 1963, and he and other luminaries are seen in vintage clips from past productions, interspersed throughout a dazzling evening of live re-enactments and tantalizing excerpts from landmark plays, including Angels in America, Stuff Happens, The History Boys and War Horse. Fans of Downton Abbey will delight to see the Dowager Countess Maggie Smith in her 1964 prime, vamping in Noel Coward's Hay Fever, followed by co-star Penelope Wilton snuggling up to Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce. PBS's own Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, riffs on mortality in a pungent slice of Tom Stoppard's breakthrough Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Judi Dench displays her versatility in bits from Shakespeare (Antony & Cleopatra) and Sondheim (a definitive "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music). Helen Mirren doing O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra made me yearn to see the whole unwieldy play.
These class acts remind us that all the world's a stage, and we're awfully privileged to have this particular constellation of stars brought into our living rooms for a front-row seat.
Less heralded, but no less committed to their passion for performing, are the young members of three New Orleans marching bands, embracing music as their salvation from the city's deadly streets in CBS's two-hour special 48 Hours Presents: The Whole Gritty City (Saturday, 9/8c). Part rhapsody, part elegy on those occasions when the dissonance of senseless tragedy undercuts the tuneful exuberance, this moving documentary (by 48 Hours editor/producer Richard Barber and cinematographer/photojournalist Andre Lambertson) follows several young musicians in verité style as they're coached by inspiring band leaders to participate in the Mardi Gras parade festivities. New Orleans native and CBS News cultural correspondent Wynton Marsalis introduces the special, speaking eloquently of music's transformative powers, which have rarely felt so essential as in this place which, as Marsalis notes, "buries too many of its young." The Whole Gritty City is highly recommended to anyone mourning the end of Treme, which also masterfully threaded music into its deeply human stories.
THE SILVER: Goes to Syfy's Helix (Friday, 10/9c), if only for the glowing silver eyes of infected Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky). Her uncertain fate in the exile ward of "Level R" creates immediate conflict between her heroic ex-husband, Dr. Alan Farraday (Billy Campbell), and the newly arrived boss lady from the sinister ILARIA Corporation, Constance Sutton (guest star Jeri Ryan, who conveys a Borg-like malevolence beneath her honeyed smile). "I don't think our agenda is her agenda," Farraday rightly figures, and that's before we witness her reunion with murderous puppet Balleseros (Mark Ghanimé) — who we still haven't forgiven for taking down the show's most enjoyable character, Doreen. When Farraday and Sutton head down to "Level R" for a rescue mission, the show's claustrophobic spookiness reasserts itself in fine fashion.
THE BRONZE: Goes to PBS's divertingly hokey Murder on the Home Front (Sunday, 10/9c, check tvguide.com listings), a WWII stand-alone thriller that acts as a necessary reminder that not all British imports aim as high as Downton Abbey and Sherlock. Tamzin Merchant stars as Nancy Drew-ish Molly Cooper, a wannabe crime writer who shucks her journalism career amid the bombings of the London Blitz to work alongside cutting-edge pathologist Dr. Lennox Collins (Patrick Kennedy). Collins' wimpy demeanor belies his determination not to let his superiors railroad a suspicious foreigner suspected of being the serial-killing "Nazi Strangler," whose signature involves carving swastikas on victims' tongues.
"I don't want a husband, I want excitement!" declares ahead-of-her-time Molly, who gets her wish, and then some. As the Blitz reduces crime scenes to rubble, Molly and Dr. Collins risk their necks and careers to unravel a cover-up that leads to an old-fashioned suspenseful showdown in the London Underground.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: If you're tired of binging on the Olympics, you can start binging on Season 2 of House of Cards. All 13 new episodes of the slick political thriller, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as the First Couple of manipulative intrigue, are available Friday, and that's how I'll be spending much of this winter weekend. ... The latest in USA Network's "Characters Unite" classic film series is 1967's Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night (Saturday, 9/8c), airing with limited commercial interruption. Sidney "Mr. Tibbs" Poitier and Rod Steiger star in a murder mystery (later adapted into a TV series) set against the backdrop of a racially polarized Mississippi. ... If you missed TBS's late-night The Pete Holmes Show during its seven-week fall tryout, the host's favorite moments will be recapped in a half-hour special (approximately 11/10c), airing on sister channel TNT after coverage of the NBA's "All-Star Saturday." The show resumes on TBS Feb. 24 after Conan. ... Only HBO's True Detective, President Obama's favorite new show, would title an episode "The Secret Fate of All Life" (Sunday, 9/8c). Sure enough, Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) goes on several existential benders about time, eternity and death as he and partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) take matters into their own hands to close a troubling case — or do they? ... A change-of-pace episode of HBO's Girls (Sunday, 10/9c) harshly questions whether honesty is the best policy when "psychopathic nightmare" Marnie (Allison Williams) gathers her estranged buds for a Long Island weekend retreat — North Fork, not the Hamptons, she points out — and her recipe for self-obsessed healing is disrupted when Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and his gay entourage make themselves at home. ... HBO's Looking (Sunday, 10:30/9:30c) also delivers an evocatively self-contained episode, in which Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Richie (Raul Castillo) take their relationship to the next level when Patrick plays hooky to spend the day together touring San Francisco and getting to know each other, for better and possibly for worse. ... Showtime promises a pivotal episode of Shameless (Sunday, 9/8c) in the wake of Liam's accident, with Fiona (Emmy Rossum) in jail and Frank (William H. Macy) in the ER, which you'd think would be his home away from home.
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