As theatrical events go, one-man shows about historical figures tend to be rather safe. Actors dress up as characters such as Abe Lincoln or Mark Twain and offer witticisms and well-known bromides. Occasionally a performance rises to the level of poignancy, as when Robert Morse (“Mad Men”) performed as Truman Capote in “Tru,” during his decline and as he came to grips with the transgressions that exiled him from his place at the center of New York society.
Tonight HBO broadcasts “Thurgood” (8 p.m., HBO), a one-man portrayal of civil rights hero and Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall, which earned Laurence Fishburne a Tony nomination.
The production, by George Stevens Jr., uses projected photographic images to powerful effect. Like its subject, nothing about “Thurgood” plays it safe, and Fishburne’s performance is shot through with his righteous anger, his sense of both justice and absurdity, and flashes of subversive and mischievous humor.
Just as “Thurgood” stands out among one-man shows, this production rises above much of the material broadcast and re-broadcast during Black History Month. At a time when a black American resides in the White House and a black actor like Laurence Fishburne stars on “CSI,” one of television’s sturdiest franchises, it’s still a mistake to think that something like Black History Month has outlived its purpose. “Thurgood” offers one man’s life, entertainingly presented, as a reminder of how short a time has passed since people were denied the right to vote or the right to attend decent schools or to live without being humiliated, murdered or terrorized all because of the color of their skin.
• Can you name the director with the most Oscar nominations? William Wyler holds the record with 12. His films are celebrated tonight on TCM, including “Dodsworth” (7 p.m., TCM), “Ben Hur” (9 p.m.) and “The Collector” (3 a.m.).
Tonight’s other highlights
• The top 20 talents are unveiled on “American Idol” (7 p.m., Fox).
• Signs of an apparent zombie outbreak on “CSI” (8 p.m., CBS).
• A salesman (David Koechner) wants to come in from the cold on “The Office” (8 p.m., NBC).
• A patient’s true diagnosis proves elusive on the season finale of “Royal Pains” (8 p.m., USA).
• A murder suspect appears to be too close for comfort on “The Mentalist” (9 p.m., CBS).
• A fired inventor loses the patent to his creation on “Fairly Legal” (9 p.m., USA).
• Lost in the jungle on “Out of the Wild: Venezuela” (9 p.m., Discovery).
A jewel heist goes terribly awry in director Quentin Tarantino’s stylishly violent and frequently funny 1992 crime drama “Reservoir Dogs” (9:15 p.m., IFC). The film used soft-rock hits of the 1970s to grisly effect, most notably “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.