Louis Theroux Law and Disorder
Theroux is a journalist who excels at being awkward, white and affable.
Actually, that’s unfair: he makes damn good television, and is always
endearing while he does it. It’s just not clear to me that he’s
personally responsible for much the unfolding drama, seeming ultimately
like a professional, televised spectator. But that’s part of his charm:
he’s the teddy bear of gonzo journalism (one could almost call his style
Louis Theroux: Law and
Disorder is a play in four parts, the first of which is titled
Law and Disorder in Philadelphia. The best descriptive short-cut
here is to say that the denizens featured in this episode could have
walked right off the set of The Wire. It’s truly uncanny.
Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the US,
and, of course, it’s all drug-related. We’re talking hazardous,
gangster-ridden urban slums. Into this scene, we inject a polite, meek,
and ultimately passive Brit, his glowing whiteness and quaint English
idioms making him seem like a visitor from outer space. He tags along
with police officers while they visit the scenes of shootings, bust
low-level criminals for low-level crimes, and fail to make any
The action is fairly intense, and yet
there is no low budget shaky-cam. Nor is there any sensationalising.
It’s all very matter of fact, and our hero does a very good job of
observing it without collapsing into a gibbering mess. Theroux
interviews cops, dealers, prostitutes and junkies in the most earnest
and believing of manners. There is occasionally a hint of skepticism in
his trademark pauses, but it very quickly becomes apparent that Louis’
M.O. is to say just enough to get the characters to share their
perspectives. It’s minimalist interviewing, and it can be powerful –
although sometimes you’d like him to be a little more probing and a
little less accommodating when confronted with outrageous, bald-faced
lies from drug dealers and violent criminals.
Mercifully, there are no traditional
moralising monologues as the episode winds up. Louis really does let
everything speak for itself. And so you get a lot of guns, drugs,
poverty and power squeezed into 55 minutes, and you aren’t spoon-fed an
opinion on any of it. Questions of police corruption, ingrained
futility, and moral equivalence between “the good guys” and “the bad
guys” are raised, but they aren’t forced down your throat. Television
should respect my intelligence like this at least a little more
With the next episode, set in
Johannesburg, we move eight or ten circles closer to the centre of hell.
If the Philadelphia was depressing, the “Jo’burg” episode is televisual
cyanide: the setting is apocalyptic and the characters alternate between
personifications of hatred and despair. Viewers are treated to slums,
guns, robbery, assault, mob violence and vigilante retribution. In an
exceptional scene, it turns out that this is even getting to our
unflappable Louis as well. “Jesus Christ”, he pleads, as an unofficial
“police force” fires indiscriminately at people who could very well be
criminals but are just as likely to be deeply unfortunate bystanders.
This episode is a learning experience.
Did you know, for instance, that buildings can be hijacked? Did you know
that the police force in Johannesburg is so widely acknowledged as a
joke-in-very-bad-taste that the community relies on a motley crew of
unofficial law enforcers? (We would normally call these “gangs”.) Watch
and learn as Louis proves that three feet beneath his bland face lurk
some sizable cojones, as he parlays with severely unhinged “private
police” who swear that really, honest to god, we didn’t kill that guy as
an act of retribution, no sir we had nothing to do with that.
The episode isn’t simply a black and
white polaroid of a straightforward dystopia. Louis’ trademark
interviewing style comes to the fore as he elicits dizzyingly
nonsensical responses from the leader of a mob. Later on, not even our
beloved Brit can keep neutral when a murderous thief tries to justify
his trade. But whether it’s the thief, the private security forces, or
the evicted girl describing an execrable slum as “a really nice place”,
the helpless catch-cry of the episode is “What can I do?” This phrase is
repeated many times by victims and criminals alike. Theroux offers no
answer, and the viewer suspects there isn’t one.
Next up is A Place for Paedophiles,
set in a prison masquerading as a treatment facility. Coalinga Mental
Hospital in California houses child molesters who have completed their
jail terms but are detained further under the pretence of community
protection. Disturbing as the inhabitants and their stories are, this
episode is almost a relief. The facilities are clinically comfortable
and sterile, and the inmates appear mild and spineless.
The episode consists mostly of interviews
(no firearms to provide any action here), and Theroux steps it up a
notch by asking some difficult questions. Very quickly, however, the
questions and answers become steeped in a vaguely cringe-worthy morass
of pop-psychological and pseudo-medical terms that do a terrible job of
camouflaging what is really endless navel-gazing from the “patients”,
and thinly-veiled coercion and implausible mind-reading from the
therapists. Take, for example, the revealing scene where a therapist
decides that “being eliminated from a conversation” by an inmate
demonstrates aggression and is “a form of abuse” – an act which might
jeopardise his chance of release.
All in all, A Place for Paedophiles
is the most intellectually interesting episode, offering up complex
characters and serious questions about the purpose of detention, the
intractable problem of incorporating these demonised people back into
the community, and the real value of what is questionably called
“therapy”. Many of the interviewees are quite aware of these issues, and
it is intriguing to hear their views.
Having stepped further from the centre of
the furnace, with the final episode we take a half step back towards it.
In The City Addicted to Crystal Meth, the chemical whirlwind that
is methamphetamine has torn through the Californian town of Fresno, and
Louis surveys the wreckage of affected families (where “families” are as
diverse as an incestuous couple, abandoned children forced to live with
their grandparents, and a mother who can’t stay clean long enough to get
any of her five kids back).
The threat of violence is absent from
this episode too, and Louis is able to get even more
up-close-and-awkwardly-British. Memorable scenes include his
uncomfortable nonchalance at spending a social evening with pipe-smoking
meth addicts, and a hilarious interview with a black market property
dealer where he asks if his interlocutor is “operating on the fringes of
legality, as it were”. Unsurprisingly, he is met by stunned
incomprehension. Oh, Louis...
Again, therapy rears its head. How could
it not, when Fresno is home to one of the biggest rehab centres in the
country? In some touching scenes, dedicated practitioners help endlessly
relapsing addicts make some sense of their lives. Even if some of the
group sessions do smell unpleasantly of Jerry Springer, and even if the
addicts’ musings on their plight often seem weak-willed, it is
impossible not to empathise and to ask yourself some serious questions.
Fortunately, there are occasions where you can count on Louis to put
these questions to the characters, such as when he tries to make sense
of a couple that have been addicts through both decades of their
reasonably happy marriage.
The subject matter
of these documentaries is reliably and incessantly captivating. The
manner in which they are shot is satisfyingly anti-sensational, and the
host has a curiously effective manner of allowing the issues (and the
characters) to explore themselves. Most importantly, this collection is
brilliant brain-food and excellent conversational fodder. It will show
you proof of things that you would prefer not to believe in, and pose
some problems that seem hopelessly insoluble. If that’s not a solid
enough promise for you, I don’t know what else to tell you. Go watch
Two and a Half Men.