In its infancy PBS was known as "educational television," a term that was not entirely complimentary. It seemed to be a place for dry "eat-your-broccoli" programming that would never be confused with entertainment. But through the decades, with programs as diverse as "Cosmos," "I Claudius," "Frontline," "NOVA" and "Antiques Roadshow," the network learned how to make the lessons go down with a spoonful of sugar.
Reflecting PBS at its traditional best, "Imagining America: Icons of 20th Century Art" (8 p.m., PBS) offers a college-level survey course in American art history that manages to engage the viewer's mind and eye and offer a wealth of information and theory. It sports a very cool soundtrack, to boot.
This two-hour program traces artists' attempts to explore their place in the American landscape. Inspired, and at times intimidated by Thomas Cole's 19th-century rural landscapes, 20th-century artists including Georgia O'Keeffe looked for new ways of seeing and representing "nature," from the man-made canyons of Manhattan to the dried bones of the American desert. "Imagining" includes archival interviews with O'Keeffe and many others, including Jackson Pollock, who, we are told, splattered his massive canvases with the landscape of his own psyche, and pop artists including Robert Rauchenberg and Andy Warhol, who exploited and exploded assumptions about our relationship with commercial media.
Like any good survey course, "Imagining" is completely accessible to those unschooled in American art history. And even if you don't give a hoot about modern art, you can enjoy music by Duke Ellington, the Beach Boys, Moby, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Aaron Copland, Charlie Parker, Liquid Liquid, the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, among others.
Tonight's other highlights
¢ JT embarks for Iran on "E-Ring" (7 p.m., NBC).
¢ Mayhem in broad daylight on "Criminal Minds" (8 p.m., CBS).
¢ A case against a crooked cop bumps up against a gangland rivalry on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (8 p.m., NBC).
¢ Cassidy's stepmother hides a dark secret on "Veronica Mars" (8 p.m., UPN).
¢ Death by tiger on "CSI: NY" (9 p.m., CBS).
¢ Lynda Carter guest stars on "Law & Order" (9 p.m., NBC).