Claire Danes triumphs in “Temple Grandin” (7 p.m., today, HBO), the true story of an autistic young woman as she navigates the difficult corridors of family, school and professional life.
With a startling use of graphics and music, “Temple” not only relates Grandin’s story but attempts to show us her particular vision of the world. Hypersensitive to noises and sights, Grandin perceived the world in pictures, combining a photographic memory with a unique clarity of insight and analysis.
This being a true story, it goes further than fiction and to strange, unexpected places. Most of the first half concerns her difficult adjustments to school, her discovery of an encouraging teacher (David Strathairn) and an unlikely friendship with a blind roommate. Any film could be forgiven for ending with her triumphal college graduation, a scene that won’t leave a dry eye in the house.
But Grandin’s journey continues to the unlikely world of cattle pens, dipping pools and slaughterhouses. There, she runs up against the clannish ways of cowboys, but she also demonstrates a unique analysis of cattle behavior — something that her autism allows her to perceive and understand. Over the decades, most of the cattle and beef industry would adopt her revolutionary techniques.
In Danes’ hands, Grandin is both strident and maddening, vulnerable and proud. And never, ever a victim. Julia Ormond also stars as a beleaguered, supportive mother. Comic actor Catherine O’Hara plays an empathetic aunt and joins the ranks of “SCTV” veterans who revel in complex and serious roles.
• You know times are bad when the entertainment business finally returns to some of the themes that sustained earlier audiences through tough times. CBS presents a post-Super Bowl helping of the new series “Undercover Boss” (9 p.m., Sunday, CBS).
As the title implies, every week a new CEO will work and mingle with his employees to learn ways to make his company function better. In tonight’s preview, the CEO of a large waste-management firm pretends to be part of a documentary film about the first day of work at various jobs. He travels the country to work at a recycling sorting center; he picks up trash near a landfill; encounters a talented if uncompensated multitasker at an understaffed office; and spends a day cleaning out portable toilets.
Combining elements “Dirty Jobs” and “The Prince and the Pauper,” this series puts the emphasis on uplift and enlightenment. In almost every case, the big boss discovers that his employees are doing their best and that often it’s his very policies that make their jobs — and their lives — more difficult. And during the tearful concluding “reveal,” he promises to actually listen — something that seems to mean more to his employees than any monetary rewards.
The movies of the Depression-plagued 1930s were filled with role-reversal plots, tales of chorus girls and shop workers falling for regular Joes who turn out to be disguised tycoons by the third reel. These movies not only offered the distraction of wish fulfillment but underscored the theme that the “common man” had a lot to offer if the big shots would only listen. And, as in “Undercover Boss,” the big shots must first walk a mile in the scuffed-up shoes of the common man or woman to learn the unvarnished truth. Films from “My Man Godfrey” to “Sullivan’s Travels” recycled this theme and became classics.
The films of the 1930s did not end or even ameliorate the Depression. They were made by very rich moguls for entertainment’s sake. But at least they had the decency not to trash their viewers’ dreams of a better life. “Undercover Boss” will not end the woes of America’s overworked and underemployed, and it will probably not result in changes in the behavior of America’s CEOs. But as reality television goes, it’s a step in the right direction.
• A teacher with Tourette’s syndrome tries to prove a point in the 2008 drama “Front of the Class” (7 p.m., CBS).
• A flammable encounter concludes season 1 of “Demons” (8 p.m., BBC America).
• A researcher awakens demons in the 2010 shocker “The Cursed” (8 p.m., Sy Fy).
• Scheduled on “48 Hours Mystery” (9 p.m., CBS): answers about a woman’s murder.
• Scamps frolic during “Puppy Bowl VI” (2 p.m., Animal Planet).
• “Super Bowl XLIV” (5:30 p.m., CBS) should be the most-watched TV event of the year.
• Our heroine meddles daily and finds Knightley on the conclusion of “Emma” on “Masterpiece Mystery” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings).
• Bill calls in campaign favors on “Big Love” (8 p.m., HBO).
A film director (Marcello Mastroianni) examines his life in the 1963 fantasy “8-1/2” (7 p.m., Sunday, TCM).