As I’ve written before, the documentaries take a single simple subject and stick to it — finding grander themes by focusing on the particular. “Nova” (7 p.m., PBS, check local listings) offers an excellent example of that approach with tonight’s “Trapped in an Elevator.”
Narrated by John Lithgow, “Trapped” begins with a single near-tragic incident and proceeds to offer an enlightening and seemingly exhaustive look at the history, engineering and future of elevators.
In 2008, New Yorker Nicholas White took a cigarette break and got stuck in an elevator for a terrifying 41 hours. His ordeal was captured on surveillance footage and became a YouTube sensation.
“Nova” reports that White’s experience may be the stuff of common nightmares but is hardly representative. In fact, elevators carry more than 325 million Americans every day. Only automobiles carry more passengers — and they are far more dangerous and far less reliable.
We learn how the elevator was invented in the mid-19th century by Elisha Otis, whose company still dominates the industry; how elevators are directly responsible for every modern building and therefore every modern city; and how the world’s newest skyscrapers (like the new half-mile-tall tower in Dubai) may be outstripping today’s elevator technology.
At the risk of repeating myself, “Trapped” is my favorite kind of documentary. One that offers a thought-provoking, I-didn’t-know-that take on a subject considered mundane and commonplace. Just don’t call it uplifting.
• In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s Election Day. Coverage (8 p.m., Fox, NBC, 8:30 p.m., ABC, 9 p.m., CBS) of the results can be found all over the dial. MSNBC and Fox News offer ongoing speculation on the 2010 midterm elections, as they have been doing since 2008. Tomorrow means the end of the onslaught of political advertising. It also brings the beginning of endless chatter about 2012.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Will puts the accent on funk on “Glee” (7 p.m., Fox).
• “30 for 30” (7 p.m., ESPN) presents “Marion Jones: Press Pause,” a profile of the Olympic champion’s rise and fall.
• A bank heist gone very bad on “NCIS: Los Angeles” (8 p.m., CBS).
• “Reel Injun” on “Independent Lens” (9 p.m., PBS, check local listings) examines the onscreen depiction of Native Americans.
• A protection run faces unforeseen complications on “Sons of Anarchy” (9 p.m., FX).
A military officer (Kirk Douglas) discovers hints of a military coup against the president led by his hero (Burt Lancaster) in the 1964 drama “Seven Days in May” (5 p.m., TCM). One of the great Burt ’n’ Kirk pairings.
A fatal Halloween prank on “NCIS” (7 p.m., CBS) … The verdict comes early on “Dancing with the Stars” (7 p.m., ABC) … Nathan feels swamped on “One Tree Hill” (7 p.m., CW) … A camping trip to remember on “Life Unexpected” (8 p.m., CW).
Thandie Newton and the latest “Dancing with the Stars” castoff appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (11:05 p.m., ABC) … Craig Ferguson hosts Lewis Black and Bettye LaVette on “The Late Late Show” (11:37 a.m., CBS).