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How could it happen?

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Jim Jones

Jim Jones

Most of us old enough to remember Jim Jones and the People's Temple don't know a whole lot other than: crazy cult leader, crazy cult followers, mass suicide with poisoned Kool-Aid.

But there was more to the story than that. A story that unfolds on tonight's edition of PBS's "American Experience" — a stunning, disturbing film titled "Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple" (tonight, 8 p.m., Ch. 7).

"The first words in the film are 'nobody joins a cult,' and I think that's really important for us to understand," said filmmaker Stanley Nelson. "You know that Jim Jones promised the people who joined People's Temple something and for a long time he really delivered on that promise. He promised them that they would be part of a community, that they would be part of this social-action experiment, and for so long he really delivered that."

"Jonestown" traces the story from Jones' childhood — when he would kill small animals and hold funerals for them — through the early years of the People's Temple when it was both a force for good and a political power in San Francisco. It recounts the cult's move to Guyana; the visit by and assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan; the murders of journalists; and the mass suicide that made worldwide headlines in 1978. And it attempts to answer the question, "Why?"

Claire Janara, a member of the People's Temple whose two children died in Jonestown, told TV critics she and others were "brainwashed."

"When you give your power over, someone else gets that power and power corrupts," she said. "And I had seen enough to know that things weren't the way they should be laid against all the good that the Temple was doing. And it was very hard to deal with. You know, where was your mind? Had I lost my mind? How come I didn't see this? How come I didn't stop this?"

Nelson called "Jonestown" the "most emotionally wrenching film I've ever made by far. It just tore me up. ... You come in thinking that these are a thousand crazy people, but very soon you start to identify with them and identify with the goodness of the people. But all the time, you know what the end is."

THANK GOD YOU'RE HERE (8 p.m., Ch. 5) looks like something that ought to be on Comedy Central, not NBC. Not that that's a bad thing.

Four celebrities — tonight it's Jennifer Coolidge, Bryan Cranston, Wayne Knight and Joel McHale — put on costumes and walk into sketches they know nothing about. Then they improvise their way through it.

(The title of the show is the first line in each of the scenes.)

David Alan Grier hosts; Dave Foley is the "judge."

All the celebrities are clever; Coolidge and Cranston are hilarious. (Hey, network execs, find them shows of their own!)

It would probably be better at 30 minutes than an hour, and not everything works. But there are enough laughs you won't regret it if you tune in.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com