‘Project Nim’ tells a true tale of science gone wrong
“Project Nim” (Thursday, 8 p.m., HBO) tells the story of a chimpanzee who was raised like a child in a misbegotten 1970s science experiment, then cruelly sent back into captivity. James Marsh’s absorbing documentary interviews the academics from Columbia University who plucked 2-week-old Nim from his mother to see if they could teach him to communicate like a human being via sign language. They placed him in a hippie household, dressed him in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts and let him smoke the occasional joint. As one interviewee points out, by way of explanation: “It was the 1970s.”
It sure was. The academics were so busy sleeping with one another that they lost track of the damage they were inflicting on poor Nim. They turned him into an unhappy hybrid — not quite human and not quite chimp. Unfortunately, he was human enough to react with shock when they finally sent him back to the cage from where came and then to a horrific research facility to be treated like a lab animal.
Though “Project Nim” is about studying chimpanzees, it’s not long before your gaze turns toward the people onscreen. The whole misadventure plays like a science experiment in human behavior: How do we treat each other? How do we treat fellow sentient beings? How do we satisfy our own selfish needs without hurting someone else?
The results are not encouraging.
‘Christmas in Washington’
Friday, 7 p.m. (TNT)
Conan O’Brien hosts the annual all-star special at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., attended by Barack and Michelle Obama and other political VIPs. The lineup is notably weak for such an august audience, with performances by lesser lights like Megan Hilty, Demi Lovato, Chris Mann and Scotty McCreery. The only true “all-star” in the lineup, Diana Ross, is well past her prime.
If worse comes to worst, we can at least count on Ross’ hairdo to be entertaining.
‘Country Stars at Home’
Friday, 7 p.m. (HGTV)
Country stars live in modest shacks out in the country, right? Where they can “listen to them crickets chirp” and “hear that ol’ hoot owl,” as Dierks Bentley puts it in “Up on the Ridge.”
Well, no. It turns out that they live in lavish, big-city apartments and mansions. This special goes into the decidedly immodest luxury homes of LeAnn Rimes, Kellie Pickler, Naomi Judd — and yes, even Dierks Bentley. It’s hard to imagine how Dierks hears “that ol’ hoot owl” in his fancy digs, unless he keeps one in a gilded birdcage.
Wednesday, 8 p.m. (Discovery)
We know the Amish as a peaceful, God-fearing people. Shunning modern dress and technology, they keep to themselves in rural areas with their bonnets and horse-drawn buggies.
Oh, and their assault rifles.
“Amish Mafia” is a reality series about the thugs who supposedly maintain the peace in Lancaster County, Pa. The Amish don’t like to go to the police with their problems, we’re told, preferring to settle things among themselves. So when there’s a dispute, a group of local menfolk play bad-asses — yes, in their suspenders, short-sleeve, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats.
The series keeps a straight face while portraying these odd-looking throwbacks to the 19th century as fearsome gangsta types. “Amish Mafia” might as well be a “Godfather” movie with its ominous music, disorienting camera angles and slow-motion shots of devout farmhands cocking their rifles.
As silly as it all sounds, I admit that my heart will probably beat a little faster the next time I see a horse and buggy in my rearview mirror. CV