Few writers could say more with fewer words than Flannery O’Connor, subject of tonight’s “American Masters: Flannery” (7 p.m., PBS, TV-14, check local listings). The author of two novels and as many collections of short stories, her life was cut short by lupus, the disease that also carried off her beloved father. She died, still writing in her hospital bed, at 39.
“Flannery” attempts to fill out and humanize the image of the dying writer isolated with her mother and flocks of peacocks on their farm in Milledgeville, Ga. The stories reveal a woman every bit as stubborn and strange as her characters.
“Flannery” includes personal photos, a rare TV interview and letters (read by Mary Steenburgen) as well as commentary by writers Mary Karr, Hilton Als, Alice Walker, Tobias Wolff and Alice McDermott.
No discussion of O’Connor can avoid her identification with the misfit, the freak, the deformed and the outsider. A deeply Catholic writer from the Georgia “Bible Belt,” O’Connor’s outsider status is best reflected in her short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” where a precocious child becomes fixated on the spiritual transcendence of a sideshow attraction. While caustic and impatient with the older girls in her midst and the boys trying to court them, the child narrator is struck by their unself-conscious ways: “He was singing a hillbilly song that sounded half like a love song and half like a hymn.” If there is a more apt and beautiful description of country music, I haven’t read it.
In its efforts to flesh out O’Connor’s meager biography, “Flannery” relates a tale of a Scandinavian book salesman who visits the farm and takes her driving, as close to a “date” as she seems to have enjoyed in her illness. After he left, O’Connor wrote “Good Country People,” a searing short story about a Bible salesman who woos a bitter, overeducated woman named Joy Hulga living with her mother, Mrs. Hopewell. But instead of seducing her, as she desired, he lures her up to an attic with a trap door and steals her wooden leg. O’Connor denied any links between herself, her mother and the book salesman and the story, but the parallels are striking.
A product of the South in the early 20th century, O’Connor wrote of characters shaped by segregation, but she hardly championed it. Nor was she a civil rights activist.
She might have been turned off politics at an early age. Before her illness emerged, she took strident anti-Communist stands in the late 1940s, positions very much informed by her devout Catholicism and not without controversy in literary circles.
Moving images of the real Flannery are few, so “Flannery” is filled with scenes from John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of her novel “Wise Blood,” as well as a 1977 public television adaptation of her story “The Displaced Person” starring Shirley Stoler (“The Honeymoon Killers”). Actor Tommy Lee Jones describes his obsession with the writer. Conan O’Brien chimes in as well. He wrote his Harvard thesis on her work.
Hopefully, “Flannery” will compel some to discover or rediscover her strange and brutally provocative books.
TONIGHT’S OTHER HIGHLIGHTS
• Dress for success on “Holmes Family Effect” (7 p.m., Fox, TV-PG).
• A plot to spring a drug lord on “FBI” (8 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).
• An uninvited guest on “This Is Us” (8 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
• A woman falls down a dangerous rabbit hole on “FBI: Most Wanted” (9 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).
• A trip to the Nutmeg State on “New Amsterdam” (9 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
• ABC News presents “Soul of a Nation” (9 p.m., ABC).
In 1951, a coach (Gene Hackman) shapes an underestimated basketball team in the 1986 sports drama “Hoosiers” (7 p.m., BBC America, TV-PG), co-starring Dennis Hopper, nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar.
Jimmy Fallon welcomes Chelsea Handler, Russell Brand and Mary Beth Barone on “The Tonight Show” (10:34 p.m., NBC) ... Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Sebastian Stan, Baratunde Thurston and Ash Soan visit “Late Night With Seth Meyers” (11:37 p.m., NBC).