“American Experience” turns to one of the nation’s greatest tragedies and most compelling crimes and police procedurals with “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings).
With the bicentennial of his birth (Feb. 12, 1809) only three days away, Lincoln continues to fascinate history buffs, readers and writers. New books on the 16th president and the Civil War seem to be published on a daily basis.
This excellent “Experience” leans heavily on “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” (Harper Perennial, 2007) by James L. Swanson, a meticulously researched history that reads like a detective thriller and page-turner.
The story is filled with many stranger-than-fiction characters and incidences. Imagine a famous actor and part of the nation’s most celebrated theatrical families becoming the president’s killer and the most hated man in the land. It happened to John Wilkes Booth, driven to grandiose schemes of vengeance by his despair over the defeat of the Confederacy.
It’s rather incredible to think that just days after Lee’s surrender to Grant, the president and his wife felt completely natural in attending a play without any bodyguards or security detail. Booth was able to approach his target without much trouble.
And Booth was not the only performer to intrude on the tragedy. According to “Manhunt,” shortly after the shooting but before the removal of Lincoln’s body, Laura Keene, an actress from the play “Our American Cousin,” insisted that she cradle the wounded Lincoln’s head in her lap — an audacious breach of privacy, security and medical protocol. But she was an actress, and she had her way. In later years, pieces of her bloody garment would emerge as grotesque relics of the terrible moment.
The next time someone says that today’s Hollywood celebrities have lost all sense of proportion (or are too close to politicians), think of 1865 and Keene and Booth.
Actor Chris Cooper (“Seabiscuit”) narrates this “Experience,” with Will Patton (“Numb3rs”) providing the voice of Booth.
Tonight’s other highlights
• “Lagerfeld Confidential” (6 p.m., Sundance) profiles the Chanel designer and his bookish habits and definite opinions on everything from innovation to the Bible.
• A curious case involves both stigmas and stigmata on “House” (7 p.m., Fox).
• The two-night quest for “best in show” begins at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (7 p.m., USA, concludes Tuesday).
• The gang from “Top Gear” (7 p.m., BBC America) looks in Jay Leno’s garage.
• Matt’s new canvas spells doom for one on “Heroes” (8 p.m., NBC).
• The White House becomes the center of the story — in more ways than one — on “24” (8 p.m., Fox).
• A documentary looks at plans from the 1930s to use blimps as a “Flying Aircraft Carrier” (8 p.m., National Geographic).
• “Women in Boxes” (8 p.m., Documentary) examines the role of female magicians’ assistants.
• A defense attorney may be too close to his work on “CSI: Miami” (9 p.m., CBS).
• A still-living doctor appears as a ghostly vision in Allison’s dreams on “Medium” (9 p.m., NBC).
To investigate union agitators, a wealthy store owner (Charles Coburn) infiltrates the rank and file in the 1941 comedy “The Devil and Miss Jones” (7 p.m., TCM), also starring Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings. “A must,” says Leonard Maltin.