What a joy it is to watch a talent competition unfold without phony tension, lame music and manufactured hissy fits. "Architecture School" (8 p.m., Sundance) follows a class of Tulane University architecture students as they submit designs for affordable housing for a poor neighborhood in New Orleans, La. It's no easy thing coming up with a three-bedroom, two-bath home that fits in 1,200 square feet and is affordable enough for low-income families.
The young students exhibit all of the pride, hubris, insecurities, ambition and potential of people in their early 20s. One young man seems too secure about his genius. Another appears to value rock climbing over study. A genial jock has no idea why he's in the class. And many of the students parrot academic jargon back at their patient professor, who continually prods them to think for themselves.
You get to watch these kids think. How often can you say that about a TV show?
"School" also offers a window on the problems of New Orleans. Katrina battered the city, but many of its woes predate that catastrophe. We get to see the students and would-be designers meet with their clientele, the neighborhood residents. Their reception is mixed. Many welcome new housing, but others are wary of modern and trendy designs that seem more appropriate to Venice Beach, Calif., than New Orleans. Many want the city to be just like it was. But urban planners argue that the city's crumbling atmosphere masked physical and social degradation.
Nobody's "flipping" houses here. There are no "Million Dollar Listings." No faded celebrity plans to fly in for momentary hugs and an extreme makeover. The problems here are hard, and the stakes are real. "Architecture School" is a rare and rewarding series that poses tough questions to its subjects and to its viewers. When does "improvement" become an invasion? And when is "charm" just another word for squalor?
¢ Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short earlier this year, "Salim Baba" (7 p.m., Cinemax) follows Salim Muhammad, a one-of-a-kind movie showman. For more than 40 years, he has wheeled an ancient hand-cranked movie projector through the streets of Kolkata, India, screening thrown-away fragments of Bollywood movies for residents shut out of sold-out cinemas.
Salim owns more than 50 movies, or at least parts of them, edited with a razor blade and spliced together with tape. He's beginning to get too old to push his cart, but he knows his sons will keep up the tradition. "This gives me peace," says Muhammad.
Tonight's other highlights
¢ Scheduled Summer Olympic (7 p.m., NBC) events include track and field, gymnastics and women's beach volleyball. Have we seen enough beach volleyball yet?
¢ "CNN Presents" (CNN) offers profiles of John McCain (7 p.m.) and Barack Obama (8:30 p.m.).
¢ "Nova scienceNOW" (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) looks at 2036 as a possible date for an asteroid collision with Earth.
¢ After fan challenges, "Mythbusters" (8 p.m., Discovery) returns to an arrow-catching argument.
¢ Just when "Project Runway" (8 p.m., Bravo) could not seem more tired, they trot out the most obvious gimmick: the drag-queen beauty contest.