While watching HBO's harrowing series, Addiction, Judge Katie Herrell realized she might have picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.
"Addiction is a brain disease."
Where's "Montana Meth?" The March 15 New York Times article that peaked my interest about HBO's 14-part Addiction series featured a teary-eyed picture of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed addict portrayed in the above-mentioned documentary short. But Ms. Montana Meth and her story are conspicuously absent from the four-disc Addiction DVD set, as are tears and overt emotion in general.
Facts of the Case
Addiction is a sobering, yet clinical look at addictions and their treatments. The series, a collection of documentary shorts by famous filmmakers (none of whom I'd ever heard of), as well as expert interviews and reports on new drug and treatment trials, fills out HBO's The Addiction Project, a valuable resource for anyone struggling with addictions in some capacity. The series advocates the controversial notion that addiction is a disease like any other, and benefits from multi-faceted treatment plans, including prescription medication.
Admittedly, the four-disc set was daunting. But Disc One starts out benignly enough, even if some of the opening shots are grainy. This disc features a 90-minute documentary divided into nine shorts—the heart of the on-air series. "Saturday Night in a Dallas ER" delivers what the title promises, and includes death and gaping wounds. The moral of the piece is that multiple traumas are caused by drugs and alcohol and the resulting cost (monetary and otherwise) to society is great.
The other shorts address "The Adolescent Addict," "The Science of Relapse," "Brain Imaging," new medications available, and the handling of addiction in the health-care system. All of these pieces are compelling due to the emotional gravity of addiction, but they aren't of the shock-and-awe variety that drug documentaries usually resort to. Instead, these are loaded with interviews of tired parents and strung-out kids speaking with amazingly calmness about their travails. (HBO repeatedly thanks the participants, in a printed message, for being so open with their lives.) Interspersed throughout the shorts, and serving as the seamless transition between the nine mini-films, are interviews with long-titled experts in the field.
Throughout the four-disc set the same experts—and their long titles—are introduced again and again; this is my first major complaint about the packaging and editing of this project. It seems like no thought was given to the continuous viewer when preparing the DVD set. Discs Two, Three and Four are all part of Addiction: The Supplementary Series, a.k.a. Addiction: The Redundant Series. Disc Three consists entirely of interviews with experts, but after the first interview with Nora Volkow, MD, I quit watching. That's because I had already seen most of Ms. Volkow's interviews on Disc One in bits and pieces. Furthermore, the questions in the interview weren't voiced but rather flashed as white text on a black screen; this is a difficult format if you are a slow reader, or plan to watch the DVD while re-gripping your tennis racquet. One of the more compelling shorts, "A Mother's Desperation," is shown as an edited version on Disc One, then in full on Disc Four. Had I known this initially, I would have only watched the longer version; of course I ended up watching it anyway, with my finger on the fast-forward button, searching for original material.
Disc Two ponders such compelling subjects as "What is Addiction?" and "Understanding Relapse." At this point I realized the audience for the series might be middle-school health classes. HBO is making a public service announcement with this series. If you missed the talking points throughout 360 minutes of video they are outlined in the accompanying booklet under the bright orange heading, "Key Messages." Let me summarize: "Addiction is a brain disease," "Relapse is part of the disease…," "Addiction is a treatable illness," and "Addiction is NOT a moral failure."
There's little notice throughout the documentary that the above messages are controversial. Many people, rightly or wrongly, think drug addiction IS a moral issue and that treating addicted people with more drugs is ridiculous. It is admirable that HBO is trying to alleviate the stigmatization that surrounds addiction, but at the same time the documentary seems rather one-sided, especially considering its focus on pharmaceutical-based treatments.
The most compelling short, "Steamfitters Local Union 638," offers an engaging story of an alcohol-addled steamfitters union that is successfully battling the addictions in their midst. This is the kind of story that good documentaries are made of. In an industry where on-job alcohol use was part of the culture, the men internally decided they were destroying their lives and that the "systems"—especially insurance and health care industries—weren't there best allies. This story assigned no blame, and didn't look for easy cures. It systematically addressed the pervasive presence of alcohol in the men's lives, and then worked to eradicate that presence. Tears flowed as a colleague's suicide is relived, and a group of behemoth men identify themselves as alcoholics and addicts, each self-recognition an admittance of need. This story offers a unique and candid insight into the lives of the addicted, and those trying to help them. Had the entire 90-minute documentary been this probing, the series might be up for an Emmy. Instead, pharmaceutical reps everywhere are patting themselves on the back for a job well done.
Visually the movie-making aspect of Addiction is uninspiring. As I've written before, drug use is fertile ground for stellar filmmaking. And while I am pleased this serious series didn't sensationalize the habit, I was still left with the cold feeling that I'd just stared at hospital walls for 360 minutes (or however many minutes I actually watched). The constant use of written text, both for the experts' titles and for directing viewers to find more information on Disc X or Y or on the Web, is further annoying and a bit confusing. I still can't figure out what each of the 14 advertised parts are, and I can't imagine the material on the Web is original. HBO went for broke with this four-disc set, and ended up overextending themselves a bit. And I still want to know where "Montana Meth" is.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The documentary and corresponding supplementary informational material is two legs up on any informational video I was ever shown in health class. I was amazed to see the success that a Northeastern drug court is having in cleaning up criminally-inclined addicts; watching one fellow's sunken eyes and sallow complexion slowly regain elasticity as he used medication to treat his alcoholism had me convinced of prescription medication's merits in treating addiction; and every expert deserves to flaunt their title, as they have devoted their lives to an extremely noble cause.
I went away from this series thankful that I didn't NEED to watch it. I gained new respect for the struggles of addicts and their families, as well as for the scientists, counselors, and doctors who work with addictions every day.
Guilty. I'm convinced that addiction is a brain disease. And even if I wasn't, even if I thought addicts were just weak people, this series shows that it's important to consider the possibility that addiction is so much more than just moral fallibility—for the sake of addict's families.
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