Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity, review: He still has a trick up his sleeve

He may no longer play the fool, but there’s still something in the British/American cultural dynamic which makes interviewees unusually chatty

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The Independent Culture

It’s time for Louis Theroux to come home now. He’s been living in Los Angeles for a few years, and  has made documentaries in the US ever since his Weird Weekends in the late Nineties. As he wandered around the Ohio State Psychiatric Hospitable in Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity, chatting amiably with the criminally insane, one thing became apparent  - this is all getting a bit too easy.

Theroux no longer resorts to flirtatious mind games or faux-naïf questioning to tease revelations from his subjects. These days, he is one of the most sensitive and adroit interviewers on the BBC’s books. He met William, a televangelist fallen on hard times; Eric, who hadn’t been allowed outside for 14 years; and also formed a particular bond with Jonathan, an articulate but reserved man who had killed his own father seven years previously. In conversation all of them quickly revealed a humanity that can often be obscured by diagnostic labels like “schizophrenia”.

The new Theroux still has one narrative trick up his sleeve, however: the delayed reveal. We got to know the person first, and often to like them, only to be flummoxed by later discovering the gruesome nature of their “incident”. In a scene straight out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a patient called Judith taught Theroux a card game, while complaining that she’d been misdiagnosed by the system – plausible, given her lucidity. It was only on a second meeting that Judith revealed herself to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. “That didn’t come up when we played cards, did it?” Theroux deadpanned.

He may no longer play the fool, but there’s still something in the British/American cultural dynamic which makes interviewees unusually chatty. Wouldn’t it be more of an achievement if he were to replicate the same magic in his home country? God knows our own beleaguered mental health system could do with the attention.

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