"American Masters" (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) takes a literary detour off its well-worn path of biographical profiles to present "Novel Reflections ... The American Dream." The two-hour survey of American literature explores the themes and discusses the authors of classic American novels.
As one professor observes, the American literary belief in the self-made and completely reinvented man began in earnest with "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," which instructed readers that a life of frugality and discipline allowed him to advance from a penniless immigrant to one of the new nation's most renowned statesman, inventor, publisher and thinker. But not every American literary character followed Franklin's ever-upward trajectory. Novelists taught us that status, chance and the kindness and cruelty of others have as much to do with American dreams as personal rectitude.
"Dream" goes on to explore the American notion of individual striving, money, class and fortune in characters found in Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie"; Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth"; F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"; John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"; Ann Petry's "The Street"; Gish Jen's "Typical American"; and Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day."
This may all sound terribly English major-y to some, but the enduring power of these themes and characters can still be seen in contemporary popular culture. Just look at tonight's network lineup. Are small towns a source of strength and solace, a place to stake your claim, raise your kids and help your neighbors? Or are they nightmare cauldrons of conformity, fear, bigotry and envy? Do some people find themselves only by leaving it all behind? These questions are at the heart of "Friday Night Lights" and "Jericho."
The notion of merit, hard work, intelligence and striving are at the heart of the American dream. But no matter how smart you are and how much you apply your talents and science, there is no way of keeping the chaos of society and nature at bay. And by defining yourself by intelligence alone, are you running away from the darker, messier aspects of your real nature? These questions and contradictions sum up the main characters on "Bones," "Criminal Minds," "Crossing Jordan" and, to some extent, "Medium."
And what would "Lost" be without the very American notion of personal reinvention? Almost every character on that mysterious island appears to be running away from something and re-creating his or her identity. Like stranded castaways from "Robinson Crusoe" to "Gilligan's Island," you never want them to be saved. They'd be "rescued" from the very character you've come to know.
Tonight's other highlights
¢ Roger goes ballistic on "Jericho" (7 p.m., CBS).
¢ The coach's rash decision has serious repercussions on "Friday Night Lights" (7 p.m., NBC).
¢ A mob-related case puts Booth in peril on "Bones" (7 p.m., Fox).
¢ Tony Bennett performs on "American Idol" (8 p.m., Fox).
¢ Junior chafes under house arrest on "The Sopranos" (8 p.m., A&E).
¢ A fired employee takes hostages at Joe's office on "Medium" (9 p.m., NBC).
¢ Kate and Juliet brave the jungle on "Lost" (9 p.m., ABC).