LOS ANGELES, Calif. – As a resident of parched California, Angela Bassett is used to playing water warden at home.
“I’m a mom with (twin) kids, 9-year-olds, trying to teach them how to wash dishes, how to wash clothes” in a time of drought, the actress said. “And to turn out the lights. I feel like the father figure in ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night,’ saying, ‘Turn that light off!'”
As the director of “Water Apocalypse,” she’s talking to a bigger audience about water crises here and around the world and the technological advances that may help resolve them.
The hour-long program is part of “Breakthrough,” a six-part series on scientific innovation from filmmaking partners Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.
“Breakthrough” debuts Sunday (9 p.m. Eastern) on National Geographic Channel with “Fighting Pandemics” and concludes Dec. 13 with “Water Apocalypse.”
Bassett, who also turned director on this year’s TV movie “Whitney,” was among the Hollywood names invited to take charge of one topic from an array that included energy alternatives and brain research.
It’s the scientists and others doing innovative work in those fields that are the stars here, not the famous directors — but Howard and Grazer say their creative talents were key.
The goal was to look at each subject “in a really personal way. That’s why we partnered with these storytellers who are very humanistic and passionate and know how to connect with an audience,” Howard said.
Bassett said she’s not presenting herself as an authority.
“I see myself as going in wide-eyed and trying to learn something. Going in with wonder, going in with questions, and hopefully we can come away with a bit more understanding,” she said.
The big-picture approach of “Water Apocalypse” takes in a remote Ethiopian village where an Italian architect, Arturo Vittori, is trying to help residents conquer a lack of accessible, safe drinking water by building a unique water-collecting tower.
“Decoding the Brain,” the Nov. 15 episode from director Brett Ratner (“X-Men: The Last Stand,” the “Rush Hour” franchise), includes Dr. Steve Ramirez’s study of how to implant or erase memories to potentially benefit those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The Age of Aging,” which Howard directed, includes researchers who believe that the field’s great achievement would be extending the human “health span” — the period of life spent without disease — as opposed to our life span. It airs Nov. 29.
Why did he assign himself that subject?
“It’s not quite as cinematic in some ways,” Howard said, “but I felt it was something that we’re all thinking about. What does it mean to people in their 80s now? What does it mean to younger people?”
Grazer, who detailed his own questioning approach in the book “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life,” said the series parallels his films with Howard, such as “Apollo 13,” that offer “the experience of entering a world that has a problem and has a solution in it. We like those thematics.”
The pair also had towering figures including Thomas Edison top of mind with “Breakthrough.” (GE, created by an 1892 merger of Edison’s firm with a competitor, joined with National Geographic on the series and its scientists’ work is included in it, although not exclusively.)
“Looking back, we know who the giants were,” Howard said, adding that “Breakthrough” could end up “catching one of those giants in action today.”
Although such progress is more likely to become apparent in retrospect, Howard said his “Age of Aging” was lucky to record “scientists in motion achieve a goal that is a significant part of the challenge.”
No spoilers here; Howard didn’t elaborate.
The other episodes and their directors:
— “Fighting Pandemics,” Sunday, from Peter Berg (“Ballers,” ”The Leftovers”). Follows those who jump into action when Ebola or other outbreaks occur and who are searching for tools to counter HIV, influenza, malaria and other killer diseases.
— “More Than Human,” Nov. 8, from Paul Giamatti (“Sideways,” ”American Splendor”), about the merger of biology and technology, including research that could help people with traumatic spine injuries walk again.
— “Energy From the Edge,” Dec. 6, from producer Akiva Goldsman (“I Am Legend,” ”Fringe”). The scientists and engineers behind alternative energy projects, including the National Ignition Facility that’s attempting to corral the energy of controlled fusion, are the focus.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.