Louis Theroux has had a good Covid. Grounded, his lockdown podcast series, has played host to Rose McGowan, Helena Bonham Carter and, most recently, Chris O’Dowd. He’s famous enough to attract interesting guests, and has a patient interviewing style well-suited to rambling Zoom calls.
Now he has been roped into the lockdown TV genre with Life on the Edge, a four-part series that looks back on his career and revisits some of his previous subjects. Theroux’s work lends itself to this treatment. With 25 years of documentaries behind him, he has a deep well to draw from. He’s also worked in this style before, most memorably when he examined his failure to spot the full monstrosity of Jimmy Savile.
The framing is more thoughtful than you expect from a clips show. In each instalment, Theroux approaches his old work through a different lens. The first episode, “Belief”, revisits his subjects with the most extreme convictions, a rogues’ gallery of racists, anti-semites, UFO-fanatics, and bent pastors. Some are outright funny, which Louis acknowledges. “There’s a pleasure in seeing someone do something really weird…” he says, a precis of his career. “The reason it’s funny is because you’re thinking, ‘That’s not me, and I would never think that’. But in a deeper way, that is all of us.”
Others are less entertaining. Although it’s still shocking to see a neo-Nazi throw Theroux out when he refuses to say whether he is Jewish, the most interesting passages in “Belief” are with more ambivalent subjects. In his first Weird Weekends series, in 1998, Theroux met a right-wing patriot in Idaho, Mike Cain, a mild-mannered and charming host utterly convinced another American civil war was imminent. The baby-faced Louis was rather taken in by Max and his family, who possessed charm and ammunition in equal measure. When Louis made the documentary, President Bill Clinton was signing new gun control legislation and Cain’s view of the world looked absurd. Over video call this summer, with Donald Trump in office, mass protests over Black Lives Matter, and coronavirus prompting unprecedented government involvement in American life, Max’s outlook seems worryingly close to reality. “The travesty of the Covid thing is not the virus itself,” Cain says, “but the tyranny it’s allowing to prosper.” Many will agree.
Perhaps the most alarming archive footage is with Lamb and Lynx, twin girls from Montana whose mother, April, was raising them to be a neo-Nazi pop act called Prussian Blue. They received widespread coverage after Louis featured them in 2003, but in their teens, the girls renounced their upbringing and previous views. Given all they’ve been through, the two adult women who speak to Theroux seem remarkably well adjusted, and bewildered by their childhoods.
Lamb and Lynx’s story draws out the sentiment that lurks in Theroux’s work: there’s always the hope of progress, however weird the weekends of the past.
Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge airs Sundays at 9pm on BBC Two
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