Grace Dent on TV: Louis Theroux’s LA stories, BBC2

Even before tragedy, Theroux doesn’t flinch. That’s just what he does

Dogs on death row and dying cancer patients aren’t the easiest of subjects to embrace for a documentary maker. At a personal level, it’s a special sort of mind that runs towards these subjects, invites the bleakness, beds themselves into the misery of Langston Jackson’s heroin-induced coma, on the seventh floor of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, then shows up day after day as events run downhill, as relatives stay strong against doctors’ advice to turn the 22-year-old Langston’s life support machines off.

Louis Theroux’s latest series of films for BBC2, LA Stories, opened with “City of Dogs” – about “weaponised” hounds and the mass euthanasia of dogs in Los Angeles – and the hospital story “Edge of Life”. Both have been difficult, emotionally bruising and life-enhancing in equal measure. I respect Theroux for his lack of tears throughout the two, because I have snivelled buckets.

As a dog lover, I lasted 15 arduous minutes on my first attempt at watching the opening show before grabbing the remote control. It was the part where Louis was travelling through LA with a kindly amateur dog-warden and they had spotted a recently pregnant, skinny pitbull whom no house on the run-down street would claim ownership of. This was despite the dog vehemently indicating she lived in one particular house; most probably the venue that had taken and sold her puppies. The dog returned again and again through force of habit to the same door. The man inside furiously denied knowing her. Eventually the gentle, confused, discarded dog was loaded into a car and sent off to the pound. Seven days is roughly how long a chucked-away dog has to make an impression on an alternative owner.

Thirty-five-thousand strays are picked up a year. This stray was a clay/muddy-coloured pitbull with a sad expression and enlarged, redundant nipples. I can make myself teary just thinking about this, yet Louis Theroux was knee deep in abandoned mutts for months. If there was one idea linking the two films – dogs and dying humans – it was the concept of love and the capacity to keep believing in change. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the bedraggled “dog whisperer” who intended to sit on the back of a savage husky and breathe confidence back into the snarling, snapping, four-legged death machine. The husky’s owner, nevertheless, would have tried everything. Her home was now a series of wire gates and pens  to lock her dangerous pet in. She couldn’t take the dog out in public and it was so strong it could easily overpower her. “But what can I do,” she said, shrugging, “I can’t give him up.”

At Cedars-Sinai, Langston Jackson’s extended family were gathered into a meeting room to hear the medical opinion on his oxygen-starved brain. Langston couldn’t hear anything. He had been in another world for seven days, which was just the problem. “By this stage, with what we know, Langston will never wake up,” the medics said. And if he did, he would be on two feeds via tube a day and would never recognise them again.

In fact, what Langston’s family needed to do – they were told – was imagine if Langston was here right now. Would he want this quality of life? Photos of Langston showed him as a handsome, athletic, charming-seeming social butterfly. “No,”  I thought as the viewer, “Langston would not want this. Langston would want his machine turned off.” The Jackson family’s faith in God healing Langston was, for the agnostic or atheist viewer, quite maddening. “He’ll be fine,” Langston’s  sister told Theroux, cheerfully. It was a level of blind faith I have never experienced, either personally or at close hand from others. Theroux remained, as ever, kind yet poker faced. I would have been tempted to shake her. “Langston  always does things in his own time, that’s just him!” she said, as if we were describing him  returning a hire car or loading a dishwasher.

The story moved on to the journeys of Donta, 31, and Javier, 29. Both young, good-looking men with tons to live for and many, many people who loved them. Both men have cancer, and their  options are running out. The tale here turned to how medics manage expectations and prepare people for death.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget Donta being informed by the group of doctors that there were no more routes available. His thin, weak hand signing his patient discharge paperwork while whispering to Louis that he was going to explore other treatments alone at home. He left in the smart jacket and baseball cap he had arrived at hospital in nine months ago, which now swamped him, the last remaining evidence of a young, cool, outgoing man with places to be. Donta died six weeks later.

And, somewhere among all this heartache, inexplicably, Langston Jackson woke up. “Who is that?” he mumbled, nodding over his sister’s shoulder. “That’s Louis, he’s from England,” she said. Doctors appeared in the room, held his face and wept. The people who had prayed for a miracle felt they had got their god intervention and everyone else was just happily befuddled. Langston did do it in his own time, after all. That’s just what he does.

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