Back in its infancy, television was described as "TV: terrible vaudeville." Television recalls vaudeville's onslaught of often-unrelated performances. If you didn't like the juggler, you had only a minute to wait for the singer or the magic act, the funny man or the dancing ladies.
No show on television better recalls the old vaudeville variety as "America's Got Talent" (7 p.m., NBC), where you're as likely to see a man juggling chainsaws as an opera singer. Human cannonballs were often part of the old variety theater format, but they rarely involved audience members or volunteers as they do on "Wipeout" (7 p.m., ABC) and "101 Ways To Leave a Game Show" (8 p.m., ABC).
The notion of television, even summer television, as merely a parade of silly burlesque distractions does not hold water, however. Tonight's listings include serious and provocative documentaries for those willing to be engaged.
"POV" (9 p.m., PBS) presents "My Perestroika," a profile of five Russians, now parents in their late 30s and early 40s, who were among the last generation of children raised in the old Soviet system. They were only in their teens when the dictatorship began to crack up around them, but some recall the pride they felt as members of the Red Pioneers, a kind of Communist scout group. Others discuss the rise of punk rock that corresponded with the U.S.S.R.'s collapse, and the spate of faith healers and popular religious fanatics who tried to fill the void left when old beliefs lay shattered. Others understand, but regret, the return of authoritarian attitudes under Vladimir Putin and his successor. "My Perestroika" is a captivating film that puts a human face on childhood under communism and the confusion and even nostalgia that can ensue when an all-controlling way of life vanishes before your eyes.
• Tonight's "Frontline" (8 p.m., PBS) examines unsolved child murder cases.
• "Burn: Evolution of an American City" (7 p.m., Documentary Channel) looks at the 1925 race riot, considered the worst in American history, that convulsed Tulsa, Okla.
• TV-themed DVDs available today include the first season of "Rizzoli & Isles."
Tonight’s other highlights
• The top 14 duke it out on "MasterChef" (7 p.m., Fox).
• War propaganda and Tiffany windows loom large on "History Detectives" (7 p.m., PBS).
• On two episodes of "Raising Hope" (Fox): fantasies (9 p.m.) and a box of memories (9:30 p.m.).
• Dwight helps find a man's missing daughter on "Memphis Beat" (8 p.m., TNT).
• A fraud threatens to unleash a war between mob rivals on "White Collar" (8 p.m., USA).
• A drug dealer needs a good divorce lawyer on "The Good Wife" (9 p.m., CBS).
• An epidemic looms on "Combat Hospital" (9 p.m., ABC).
• Annie becomes a target on "Covert Affairs" (9 p.m., USA).
• Green Bay meets Canada on "How the States Got Their Shapes" (9 p.m., History).