HBO’s 14-part series The Addiction Project is a noble endeavor for the cable network with a long-standing jones for documentaries. Twenty different documentary filmmakers contribute — D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Albert Maysles, Liz Garbus, Eugene Jarecki and Barbara Kopple among them — and the topics include new medications for opiate addiction, brain imaging, the effects of drug addiction on ER workloads, and the callousness of the insurance industry.
The ambition of this multiplatform endeavor (Web streams, a companion book, podcasts) is evident, but the hopefulness is apparent too, as it attempts to inform, shatter myths and depict hard-working professionals battling to save lives. The most interesting segment of the 90-minute “centerpiece” film that debuts tonight is Kopple’s, which is a revisiting of sorts to the world of labor unions that was the subject of her two Academy Award–winning films, Harlan County, USA and American Dream. Called Steamfitters Local Union 638, it profiles a unique self-insured 12-step program within a union whose members have shown a propensity for alcoholism, and benefits from Kopple’s storied ability to get up close and personal with blue-collar toughs at their most vulnerable.
The rest of Addiction, however, has a certain instructional dryness, pardon the pun. That’s why its rollout timing with the third-season debut of A&E’s reality series Intervention this weekend feels especially strange. Because where Addiction is the heart-and-head appeal to our sympathies, Intervention is the gut punch. There, in the season opener, is all one needs to know about the uphill battle for users and their loved ones, as we watch an OxyContin-ravaged college dropout shooting up with married friends who have a kid, reducing his desperate mother to an enabling money giver, and sharing chilly exchanges with a once-loving stepfather, himself an addict (alcohol) who’s never gotten help.
And like seemingly most episodes of this terribly gripping show, which makes it perilously close to the feeling of a hit, it lulls us into teary optimism when the intervention occurs, only to fling us back to earth with the episode-ending where-are-they-now text that pretty much suggests, so much for talk and rehab.