Animal lovers may find “Project Nim” (8 p.m., HBO) hard to take. This heartbreaking odyssey reveals as much about animal instincts as human cruelty.
Born in 1973, chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky was subject to horrors from his earliest days. His mother was “put down” when he was only a few days old so that he could be “raised” by human researchers and learn sign language.
Nim’s ensuing years are a tragicomic roller coaster of linguistic breakthroughs and broken furniture, as a succession of scientists try to domesticate Nim, only to have the clever primate trash their homes and bite them in the face. This behavior lands Nim in grimmer laboratory settings.
News of Nim’s serial institutionalization earns him supporters who begin a campaign to liberate the chimp. But where can he live? What is “natural” to an animal raised by humans to “ape” human behavior?
• Country stars share personal anecdotes about the holidays and sing a song or two on “CMA Country Christmas” (8 p.m., ABC), hosted by Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland.
• Michael prepares to flee the country on the two-hour season finale of “Burn Notice” (8 p.m., USA). But not before running into an ambush that sees Sam (Bruce Campbell) shot and Jesse (Coby Bell) captured. It’s a fitting season-ender for a series with more than its share of cliffhangers.
Tonight’s holiday programming
• Former residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. recall the holiday season on “A White House Christmas: First Families Remember” (7 p.m., NBC).
• Linus, Lucy and Rerun seek canine company in the 2003 special “I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown” (7 p.m., ABC).
• A war widow (Janet Leigh) has two suitors sniffing around the mistletoe in the 1949 romance “Holiday Affair” (7 p.m., TCM).
• The Griswolds illuminate with a vengeance in the 1989 comedy “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (8 p.m., ABC Family).
Tonight’s other highlights
• Hosts Khloe Kardashian Odom and Mario Lopez reveal the winner live as one lucky musician emerges with a $5 million recording contract on the season finale of “The X Factor” (7 p.m., Fox).