"American Masters" celebrates one of the most popular figures in television history with "Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character" (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings). The film makes much of her unhappy biography and the fact that this famous clown spent many of her formative hours watching movie double features with her grandmother in Fort Worth, Texas, as her father and mother waged a losing battle with alcohol. Burnett would go on to care for her orphaned younger sister and then help a daughter battle drug addiction only to lose her to cancer.
The bulk of "Woman" consists of familiar and favorite clips from "The Gary Moore Show" and her own variety show that dominated ratings for more than a decade after its launch in 1967. Burnett's supporting cast, including Harvey Korman, Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence describes Burnett's show as a happy production where the biggest problem was not cracking up on camera.
It's interesting how much Burnett speaks of bonding with her grandmother, because her show and its frequent reference to old films offered TV viewers a brand of broad comedy with intergenerational appeal.
The "Carol Burnett Show" aired during some of the most tumultuous times in recent history and during a period when television began to appeal to niche audiences. She bridged the TV gap between Red Skelton and John Belushi.
Of all the words of praise for Burnett heard here, the most notable come from actress Jenna Elfman, who prefaces every memory of watching "The Carol Burnett Show" with the phrase, "My mom and I." This underscores a point that Conway also makes - that few people watched the show alone.
Some question why Burnett did not make more overt statements about Vietnam, Nixon or feminism. But at a time when the nation seemed to be tearing itself apart, "The Carol Burnett Show" was among the few things that people watched together. And that's no small feat.
¢ Now entering its second season, the series "Murder by the Book" (9 p.m., Court TV) explores the true crimes and notorious trials that inspired and intrigued some of America's most popular novelists. Tonight's "Murder" features best-selling author Sandra Brown ("Play Dirty") and follows her interest in a sensational 1980 ax-murder case.
Located in a small suburb north of Dallas, the story had everything. After a devoted mother and housewife was murdered with 41 ax blows, fears of a cult killing spread quickly. But subsequent evidence pointed to a love triangle within a church group, a jealous lover and a startling confession from a schoolteacher and bible-school volunteer. And that's not the most surprising aspect of the investigation and trial! The story may be a humdinger, but Sandra Brown's observations add almost no insights into the tangled tale.
¢ The preschool heroine goes beneath the waves in the feature-length adventure "Dora Saves the Mermaids" (6 p.m., Nickelodeon).
Tonight's other highlights
¢ College homecoming proves to be a rough place to keep a secret on "Chuck" (7 p.m., NBC).
¢ Chris spices up his journalism with some tales from the 'hood on "Everybody Hates Chris" (7 p.m., CW).
¢ The nightmare man keeps several heroes tied up on "Heroes" (8 p.m., NBC).
¢ "Hitler and the Occult" (8 p.m., National Geographic) explores the dictator's lifelong embrace of mystic beliefs.
¢ Witness protection on "Journeyman" (9 p.m., NBC).
¢ Brash radio deejays (Martin Mull and Eileen Brennan) fight the "man" in the 1978 comedy "FM" (8 p.m., VH1 Classic), a relic from another media era.