The best documentaries, or at least my favorite films, concentrate on a tightly focused subject in order to illuminate much larger worlds. “Between the Folds” on “Independent Lens” (9 p.m., PBS, check local listings) is that kind of film.
“Folds” looks at the highly specialized world of origami — the art of folding paper. We quickly meet fascinating practitioners from all over the world, men and women who discuss their art in terms of music, sculpture, science and mathematics. Some follow rigid rules; others exult in chaos. One artist limits himself to a single crease.
We see a grammar school teacher in Israel make geometry come alive with paper-folding. Meanwhile a professor in California shows how origami can demonstrate principles usually covered in third-semester calculus.
MIT’s youngest professor shows how proteins might be folded to combat specific diseases, and an engineer demonstrates how origami was used to fold and unfold radar dishes on deep-space probes and help fit the air bag in your car’s steering column.
A beautiful, thought-provoking film, “Between the Folds” will make you think more than twice about the intersection of art and science.
• The too-wacky office sitcom “Better Off Ted” (8:30 p.m., ABC) enters its second season with an episode about the meddling mega-corporation pushing a dating/mating contest as a way to “breed” new employees and lower health care costs. More clever than funny, this show, like its funniest character, Veronica (Portia de Rossi), has a rather brittle exterior easier to admire than love.
• Postponed from last week for a presidential address, the holiday special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (7 p.m., ABC) returns, as it has since 1965. “Disney Prep and Landing” (7:30 p.m., ABC) follows a remarkably charmless effort that likens Santa’s minions as cogs in a joyless bureaucracy and compares the night before Christmas to a military operation.
• A winner emerges on “The Biggest Loser” (7 p.m., NBC). Trying to fathom NBC programming decisions is a fool’s errand, but you have to wonder why the network flogs this tired franchise during the regular season, while relegating the popular “America’s Got Talent” to the summer. “America” is the only talent/realty series on NBC that comes close to the water-cooler buzz of “Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars.”
Tonight’s other highlights
• The top eight perform on “So You Think You Can Dance” (7 p.m., Fox).
• A missing drone sparks concerns on “NCIS: Los Angeles” (8 p.m., CBS).
• Mentoring can be hard on “Scrubs” (8 p.m., ABC).
• The glib new comedy “Outer Space Astronauts” (8:30 p.m., Syfy) merges live action and animation in ways that did not make me laugh, even once.
• A former neighbor needs help on “The Good Wife” (9 p.m., CBS).
• Decoding the un-claimed on “The Forgotten” (9 p.m., ABC).
• The documentary series “Teen Mom” (9 p.m., MTV) follows four women, graduates of “16 and Pregnant.”
Viewers perplexed by the popularity of reactionary demagogues in both media and politics should not miss “A Face in the Crowd” (8:45 p.m., TCM), director Elia Kazan’s prophetic 1957 satire, starring Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal.