Poverty has never been an easy subject for television. With her moving new documentary “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County” (8 p.m., HBO), filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi explores poverty and desperation through the observations of 7-year-olds. In doing so, she harks back to a narrative device that predates television itself. Had Charles Dickens written angry tomes about Britain’s poor, he’d be forgotten today. Instead, he crafted characters like Oliver Twist who endure nearly two centuries later. The makers of the “Our Gang” or “Little Rascals” shorts did a similar thing.
Pelosi visits with several families of young children living week-to-week on the outskirts of Disneyland in California’s Orange County. Many kids and their single mothers or both parents live five and six to a single room, often with pets.
Pelosi, best known for sarcastic political documentaries about the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections, lets the kids, parents and teachers speak for themselves and keeps her opinions to herself. The most amazing moments appear to be unstaged and unscripted. A pair of brothers take her on a tour of where they “play” and lead her upstairs, “where all the drugs are.” Two adolescent girls describe the routine infestation of bedbugs, and a group of boys show how to get the best stuff out of a Dumpster after other tenants get evicted.
None of the parents interviewed here are on relief. They work at chain stores and as nurses’ aides, and at least one of them is a veteran employee at Disneyland, the “happiest place on Earth.”
While using the children to provide a window on an unseen world, Pelosi captures 7-year-olds at their most guileless and innocent. At once adorable and deeply sad, they will break your heart.
Tonight’s other highlights
• A death at a political rally blurs the line between assassination and old-fashioned murder on “Lie to Me” (7 p.m., Fox).
• True confessions on “The Bachelorette: The Men Tell All” (7 p.m., ABC).
• Dan goes undercover on “Good Guys” (8 p.m., Fox).
• The daughter of a soldier missing since the Korean War sifts evidence on “History Detectives” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings).
• Anticipation mounts for movie night on “Huge” (8 p.m., Family).
• “20/20” (9 p.m., ABC) promotes “The Bachelorette.”
• The three-part series “Turmoil & Triumph: The George Shultz Years” (9 p.m., PBS, check local listings) concludes.
• A passage to India on “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” (9 p.m., Travel).