Filmmaker David Grubin tends to take on big subjects. His films for PBS have included “Napoleon,” “The Secret Life of the Brain” and biographies of American Presidents Johnson, Truman and Franklin Roosevelt. Tonight, he tackles a two-hour biography of “The Buddha” (7 p.m., PBS, check local listings).
Most people are familiar with the name but know next to nothing about the life of Buddha. And unlike practically every other founder of a major religion, Buddha never claimed to have been a god or sent by a god. He offered no creation myth or overarching explanation for human existence.
“The Buddha” uses intriguing animation to wonderful effect, to illustrate both key biographical elements as well as hard-to-explain philosophical concepts. Narrated by Richard Gere, the film also includes interviews with many Western adherents of the religion, including poet W.S Merwin and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. Practicing Buddhist monks and the Dalai Lama are also on hand to comment upon the Buddha’s life and teachings.
It’s no stretch to call “The Buddha” a thoughtful, even meditative film about a religious figure and faith unfamiliar to many. Like many religious profiles, “The Buddha” often crosses the line between biography and overt proselytizing. It would be difficult, if not pointless, to try to separate one from the other. At the same time, when PBS presented a film about Muhammad in 2002, it raised more than a few eyebrows.
“Independent Lens” (9 p.m., PBS, check local listings) follows with “Unmistaken Child,” a documentary look at the search for the child believed to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan master.
• British comics David Mitchell and Robert Webb return with two comedies “Peep Show” (8 p.m., BBC America) and “That Mitchell and Webb Look” (8:30 p.m.).
• “Top Chef Masters” (10 p.m., Bravo) returns for a second season, pitting acclaimed chefs against each other in weekly challenges. This season promises a fun menu of celebrity judges, including “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and Hank Azaria, the voice of “Simpsons” characters Moe, Apu, Chief Wiggum, Carl, Snake, Comic Book Guy and many others. And look for the cast of “Modern Family,” too!
• “Kiss and Tell: The Other Women Speak” (9 p.m., E!) features women portrayed as the unsympathetic side of a tabloid triangles, or in the case of Tiger Woods, a decahedron.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Chance takes on a royal pain as a client on “Human Target” (7 p.m., Fox).
• On two episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (NBC), family distractions (8 p.m.), a wedding misunderstanding (9 p.m.).
• One talent departs on “American Idol” (8 p.m., Fox).
• Gloria doesn’t exactly appreciate Jay’s favorite comedian (David Brenner) on “Modern Family” (8 p.m., ABC).
• A murder witness winds up dead, perhaps by her own hand, on “CSI: NY” (9 p.m., CBS).
• Hilda’s wedding nears on “Ugly Betty” (9 p.m., ABC).
• Erica finds her life upended on the second-season finale of “Being Erica” (9 p.m., SoapNet).
Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close and Annette Bening star in director Tim Burton’s 1996 sci-fi farce “Mars Attacks!” (7 p.m., Encore), loosely adapted from a set of violent trading cards that delighted boys and scandalized parents in 1962.