The history of noble and righteous people can often be dull. So I was apprehensive about “The Abolitionists” on “American Experience” (8 p.m., PBS), a three-part documentary that airs on Tuesdays through Jan. 22.
I’m happy to say, my fears were unfounded. This documentary arrives, like Steven Spielberg’s well-received “Lincoln,” to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
A blend of re-enactment and talking head narration, “Abolitionists” is character-driven. It concentrates on writer/publisher William Lloyd Garrison; Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned orator and author; Angelina Grimke, raised in one of South Carolina’s most prominent plantation families; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose sentimental 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” helped transform the anti-slavery movement from a radical fringe to a popularly accepted notion.
‘‘Abolitionists” does a good job of reminding us just how extreme the notion of liberating all slaves seemed when Garrison first started printing “The Liberator” in 1831. Slavery was an institution, and slaves as property constituted the most valuable asset in the American economy. To challenge slavery was an assault on private property itself.
We’re also reminded how these radicals were both buttressed and inspired by deep religious faith. As one detractor remarks, abolitionists were often dismissed as “moral monomaniacs.” It’s fascinating to note that this movement transformed American society in a single generation.
‘‘Abolitionists” is not without its juicy side, concentrating on the rifts that emerged between Garrison and Douglass. After the former slave eclipsed his onetime mentor, Garrison began to spread rumors of adultery to bring him down a peg. Some things, it seems, never change.
Tonight’s other highlights:
• “History Detectives” (7 p.m., PBS) examines an artifact linked to our national anthem.
• Mindy’s brother threatens to drop out of school on “The Mindy Project” (8:30 p.m., Fox).
• Lamb falls into hostile hands on “Vegas” (9 p.m., CBS).
• Joel and Julia fret on “Parenthood” (9 p.m., NBC).
• Amelia takes a chance on “Private Practice” (9 p.m., ABC).
• Evidence leads Raylan to a suspect in his own family on the season premiere of “Justified” (9 p.m., FX).