Two years after throwing its considerable documentary resources at another do-gooder project, “Addiction,” HBO returns with the equally comprehensive and ambitious “The Alzheimer’s Project,” which carries the producing imprimatur of California first lady Maria Shriver, but only intermittently connects as a viewing experience. Delving deeply into the science of what the four-part program dubs “the second most-feared illness” behind cancer, the project is not surprisingly best in humanizing Alzheimer’s toll and worst when it veers into after-school special territory.
Part I, “The Memory Loss Tapes,” is the strongest component, dealing with seven separate stories of people at various stages of affliction — from having trouble remembering names to being deemed unable to drive (“I have lost my independence”) to, in its most severe form, hallucinating about snakes crawling up a wheelchair.
“He really has no life now,” a woman says of her husband, reduced to a vacant stare, in one of the more poignant and painful sequences.
The following night brings the Shriver-hosted “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?,” derived in part from her father, Sargent Shriver, who has Alzheimer’s. Feeling like a Linda Ellerbee Nickelodeon spec, the half-hour offers five lessons mostly directed at kids on how to deal with relatives who are Alzheimer’s patients.
That gives way to “Momentum in Science” — a science-intensive (as in carving up and analyzing brain tissue) two-part look at the prospects for treatment and a cure — concluding along with “Caregivers,” about those forced to watch helplessly as loved ones mentally slip away.
Given that the larger goal is primarily educational — including 15 supplemental films being made available on demand and online — there’s little point in evaluating “Alzheimer’s Project” by conventional standards. That said, the presentation could have done more to increase the science’s accessibility to laypeople, and the segment for children feels both manipulative and stylistically at odds with the more compelling portions that bookend the multiday presentation.
Even so, this is another instance of HBO leveraging its enviable business model to shed light on an illness that remains poorly understood and may affect more than 5.3 million Americans. Based on that mandate, it’s perhaps inevitable that this project will range from sobering and moving to, at times, feeling a bit too much like homework.