By Christine Spines
Updated May 10, 2009 at 12:00 PM EDT
Katja Heinemann/HBO

HBO’s latest documentary series, The Alzheimer’s Project, was executive-produced by Maria Shriver, whose father, Sargent Shriver, has struggled with the disease since being diagnosed in 2003. Interestingly enough, both Shriver and many of HBO’s most celebrated previous docs — like Spike Lee’s Katrina exploration, When the Levees Broke, or George Clooney’s Darfur lament, Sand and Sorrow — share a unique strand of cultural DNA that combines the worlds of entertainment and politics to compelling effect. However, “The Memory Loss Tapes,” the first episode of The Alzhermer’s Project, is definitively un-Hollywood and apolitical. It’s a bold, classy move, considering the subject matter of old people slowly losing their minds hardly has the lurid drawing power of the pimps, prostitutes, and anorexics that have come before them on the cable outlet.

“The Memory Loss Tapes” drops into the lives of seven patients battling varying degrees of dementia. Some have recently been diagnosed and are grasping at the last vestiges of independence and the pain/pleasure of cognitive thought. Watching a 60-something former computer programmer and self-proclaimed genius agonize in his daily blog over the looming eventuality that one day he’ll no longer have any grasp on reality is sobering stuff. And the guy’s gallows humor about his case of DDS “dead dick syndrome,” a side effect from his memory-loss drugs, makes you wonder how much a man can take. There are other equally moving (and depressing) tales, including a former artist who painted over her canvases and spends her days clucking like a hen; the barbershop a cappella singer who can’t remember his own wife but performs an old standard in front of a packed house perfectly; and the final heartbreaking look at the last dying breath (literally) of a man whose wife finally takes him off the meds and lets him go.

It’s not as grim as this sounds. Mainly, you come away feeling chilled by watching people become quarantined from the very thing that makes us human — the ability to think. Makes me think Freud had it all wrong when he said “ignorance is bliss.” If nothing else, “The Memory Loss Tapes” plays like an argument to turn off the boob tube and crack open the old copy of Moby Dick or Ulysses or Infinite Jest — you know, the thing you’ve been too lazy to dive into when the latest episode of comfort-food TV is too tempting to resist.

So, PopWatchers, what’s the challenging book/play/piece of music you’ve been putting off in favor of more mindless entertainment? What’s your favorite escape hatch? And will you be tuning in to The Alzheimer’s Project?

addCredit(“Katja Heinemann/HBO”)