boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
TELEVISION REVIEW

Relentless 'Addiction' aiming to educate

Can television change the world? Or, perhaps to put it better: Can powerful television change the world? "American Idol" has announced that it will use its massive bully pulpit to raise money and awareness about poverty. Now, HBO wants to change the way people think about drug and alcohol addiction.

The oft-repeated message of "Addiction," the documentary that airs tonight, is that addiction is a treatable disease, not a failure of will. And if this seems a counterintuitive concept -- we've been reared, after all, to believe in the power of a single dramatic intervention -- the network has assembled ample evidence.

Indeed, "Addiction" is billed as a "multimedia event " comprising tonight's 90-minute film, 13 more short films , four similarly-themed documentaries on HBO2, a companion book, an interactive website, and a 30-city outreach campaign. Co-sponsors include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation , the National Institute on Drug Abuse , and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism .

In short, this is less a documentary project than a comprehensive self-help workshop. And it could be a highly useful one, given the statistics in the HBO press kit: One in four Americans has a primary family member who struggles with addiction, and more than half of adults have a family history of problem drinking.

As drama, however, it's a little bit relentless. Tonight's flagship documentary consists of nine short segments from a stream of highly regarded directors, each examining a small aspect of a very large subject. The segments aren't substantially different in tone -- they tend toward gritty verite -- so the effect isn't so much a film festival as a grim newsmagazine.

Still, the subjects speak with impressive candor, and their stories are assembled into a single arc. We see the effects of addiction on lives and families, we learn about groundbreaking science probing the root of the problem, we get a glimpse of some promising solutions, including a drug for alcohol abuse that seems to work miracles. The rub -- captured in a segment filmed at a moving Pennsylvania public hearing -- is that many insurance companies won't cover the costly treatments.

There's not much time to delve into each featured addict's past, but they largely seem to fit a particular type: middle-class, mostly white, well-meaning, and willing to entertain the idea of getting help. There seems an overarching effort to ensure that the audience isn't inclined to lay blame. And we are repeatedly told, by a string of sober experts, that these people cannot stop themselves. Their brain chemistry won't allow it.

So beyond the paper-pushers, we're left with few villains -- just scene after scene of wreckage, punctuated with glimmers of hope. The most compelling passages show us parents and children, struggling across a divide. The kids, glassy-eyed and matter-of-fact, don't seem to understand their parents' drive to get them help. (One expert notes that, to a teenager with problems, drugs feel like the best thing in the world, not the worst.)

In one segment, directed by Susan Froemke and Albert Maysles , a mother has her daughter arrested for drug abuse, then drives her home from the police station, making chipper conversation about the path to recovery. The daughter slumps, exhausted, in the backseat of the car and talks lazily about changing her life. It's not that she's had an epiphany. She's simply been worn down.

This, perhaps, is HBO's hope, too: Spread enough information in enough directions, and you might, through the sheer power of your institution, force the rules to change. Not a terrible plan, if enough of the right people watch.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to viewerdiscretion.net.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES