TV review: “Louis Theroux: Dark States” (2017)

“Louis Theroux: Dark States” (2017)


Created, written & presented by: Louis Theroux


The last time we saw Louis Theroux was his revisitation to a subject that seems to have haunted him for some time, he obviously felt like he needed to revisit, this was “Louis Theroux: Saville” (2016) – an analysis of himself, something Theroux does not often do, to be honest he needn’t have bothered – he was not to blame for Saville, the monster, nor was he to blame for not seeing what Saville was hiding, years of predatory sexual behavior. This was a serious issue for the presenter, which has now seen him return to some more serious issues, that of drugs, prostitution and murder in the US.

While these three episodes are not quite a return to his ‘Weird Weekends’ there is a feeling that Theroux is cashing in on those while attempting to make something more serious as well as socially conscious, like his “My Scientology Movie” he also tries to comment himself on his feelings on what he has witnessed, with his interactions with people he encounters. His actual interactions can be successful in relation to coming to a truth about a person which is great for the viewers, they think they are being let in on someone’s life, be that tragic or not. Many of these lives are in a state of flux illustrating the issues that are being touched upon, but with little positive outcomes, just like real life.

Of course Theroux’s great strength is his ability to ask questions that in their form seem minimalistic, as well as fairly innocuous, but in fact open the subject up in ways many other interviewers/reporters may find impossible. There are many examples of this not only within these three episodes but in all of his documentaries. In the final installment for example after talking to two groups of people in Milwaukee about a recent murder of one their friends, he matter-of-factly asks, “Do you know who murdered him?” – on both occasions everyone (except Louis who has a great poker face) looks a little stunned – “No” they answer he then follows it up immediately with “You probably wouldn’t tell me if you knew anyway, right?” – that is greeted with knowing grins from both groups. This is the bread and butter of any Theroux documentary, after all these years it never fails to work.

Over the past seven years or so I have viewed almost all of the Louis Theroux oeuvre, I have looked forward to new shows, seeing his growth over the entire lot. Many of his shows are not perfect, not even close, but he has a true exuberance in meeting new people in new countries who have experienced life that is completely foreign to him, such as neo-Nazis, transgender kids, scientologists, murderers, pedophiles, the list goes on and on. What he does is let his audience in on those people too which can elucidate another point of view, this can either change or back up the morals of the person watching which is an achievement worth having.

Of course with many documentarians it can be them that is ultimately the subject of their work, especially when viewing work over a period of years. It is not difficult to imagine what someone like Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield is like in real life; they are always in front of their camera. However what I love about Theroux is that he puts himself front and center, but I feel like I do not know him, he remains a mystery to me to this day. He goes out of his way to make sure the focus in on his subject as well as subject matter rarely offering his own social or political opinions.

Theroux will give his subjects space and time, sometimes what feels like an uncomfortable amount of it, to not only answer his queries but to offer more information than they may have felt they were going to, or to give looks that can give away their motivations or true feelings. This is no more so than in episode two where he enters a prison to talk to a pimp who is serving forty years for trafficking in people. The exchange between them is affable with Theroux asking about his crimes, then steering the conversation to how his victims, the prostitutes, felt or why they did what they did. The answers are what you might expect, but then Theroux says offhand “It’s like a cult and you are their leader”, to which the pimp answers “If that’s what you think”, then a pause and he adds “I guess it is”, a longer pause and the pimp just starts smiling. Both men in this exchange give so much away but it is the camera that reveals the truth between the two men as well the audience looking on.

As I said these three episodes are not perfect, they do not dig deep to analyze why all of these people find themselves in the situations or worlds they find themselves in. Each episode runs for sixty minutes, to be honest each episode could run for sixty hours and you may never find the truth of the issues, but my feeling was with another thirty minutes a broader picture could have been painted about the geography of the locations, the ‘victims’ as well as the perpetrators, which do exist in each episode. Louis does not let people off the hook in many situations, but when talking to a mother who owns many guns that she says she uses for protection I could not help but think he held back, maybe intimidated by her as well the weapons on show. This is just one example but my feeling was he was in a situation he did not know how to react to which I was a little disappointed by.

As I said for the most part within the three episodes Louis does a great job of talking to street level, for the most part everyday people doing what they do, not embarrassed by how they are filmed or how they are talked to. Out of the three episodes I found the first one “Heroin Town” to be the most relevant as well as most enlightening for various reasons, I could relate to it, I felt for the people involved in it, I though Louis was most at home in each situation and that he could see that real people were lost in their lives, some knew that, some did not. Another huge factor was that you could witness people taking drugs, whether injecting or smoking it, which meant you were a witness to their day-to-day lives. In the other two episodes you cannot witness a murder or someone prostituting himself or herself meaning that their lives were being relayed second as well as third hand, so the impact is lost for a viewer.

All in all though for a majority of each episode it is impactful to have someone in the audiences shoes asking questions I would ask, but being 100% non judgmental, just wanting to know about them, as well as their situation, I will always watch a Louis Theroux documentary because I learn about an aspect of life I hope never to experience. In saying that it is always these people that are taken advantage of, lied to and victimised, the first in society when change happens. This will become apparent throughout the world, as new governments are elected especially the right wing as they will be aiming at easy targets, these people are those targets. As we see in the first episode drugs to do not discriminate, they will get whomever they can, whether you are male or female, rich or poor, no matter what culture you identify with – this is a point we can all take from this, remembering victims are not perpetrators.

Looking ahead if you can watch these episodes you should, they are worth while, poignant as well as entertaining. We see through an awkward Englishman’s eyes some serious situations that are occurring in a county that professes to be the greatest in the world, which of course it is not. Like so many nations it is living off past victories but will not face up to the reality that other nations are doing much better with less. This is series worth watching just to see some harsh realities at play.

Episode One: Heroin Town

Louis looks at America’s love affair with prescription painkillers that has led to a widespread dependency on opiates.

Episode Two: Sex Trafficking in Houston

Investigating sex workers and their pimps, Louis uncovers the dark underbelly of Houston, Texas.

Episode Three: Murder in Milwaukee

Louis spends time with the Milwaukee Police Department as they try to tackle the high rate of homicide and meets the residents affected by gun crime.

“Louis Theroux: Dark States” is coming to streaming and broadcast television soon.

Episode One: Heroin Town will be screened in New Zealand cinemas from 17th November 2017.

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