What Went Wrong With… Louis Theroux?

A caricature of Louis Theroux by What Went Wrong Or Right With

Back in the late nineties, Louis Theroux was an original documentary maker who injected a sense of lightheartedness and fun into his high-spirited yet lowbrow series ‘Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends’. Alongside presenters like Daisy Donovan and her show ‘Daisy, Daisy’, Theroux seemed to be intrinsically linked with the spirit of the late nineties, a time when British documentaries slowly became less stuffy and less pretentious. Even though this would eventually lead to a completely amateur aesthetic (like that of Stacey Dooley or Reggie Yates for example) back in the late nineties and early noughties this style was very refreshing.

Like Nick Broomfield minus his intrusive microphone, Louis Theroux used to get involved in his subject matter, sometimes getting into the nitty-gritty of the subject. I recall him once participating in the casting process of a porn film, and it was this type of engagement that added to Louis’ unique and reinvigorating documentary style. More recently however, Louis Theroux has become the very antithesis of his late nineties self; looking on at his subject at arms-length, most of the time stood about motionless and expressionless. Gone are the days of the nude Polaroid.

Putting all this praising of the past aside, there are a few things that Mr. Theroux has been responsible for that need criticising, the main thing being his choice of topics. ‘Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends’ sported a tone that subtly belittled the subject, in fact Theroux specialised in not only making the topic seem foolish but also in making the people involved look either stupid or strange. When you look back at ‘Weird Weekends’, the programme seemed to demonise very specific sections of society, and on the cusp of the millennium Theroux almost conspiratorially “tackled” every issue, topic, or demographic that would later be hyped-up and then looked down upon or vilified by the media. His show included; conspiracy theorists (‘UFO’ & ‘Survivalists’ episodes), pro-black Americans (‘Black Nationalism’ episode), masculinity (‘Wrestlers’ & ‘Body Building’ episodes), religion (‘Born Again Christians’ episode), Free Love and non-procreational sex (‘Porn’ & ‘Swingers’ episodes), Hip-Hop music (‘Gangsta Rap’ episode), TV presenters and entertainers from the 1970s (‘Paul And Debbie’ & ‘Keith Harris’ episodes) and let’s not forget everybody’s favourite hate-amalgam Jimmy Saville. Coincidentally, Theroux did shows on two celebs (Saville and Max Clifford) who would later be the subject of various sexual offence charges, the man must be jinxed.

Short of Muslims, immigrants, gypsies, and people living on benefits, Theroux pre-empted almost every single target that would be decried by the mainstream media throughout the noughties and teenies, but more recently he’s moved onto more “serious” subjects. So after his convenient mockery and bringing down of 70s celebs, twentieth century pastimes, and alternative thinkers, Theroux has recently made a slew of disheartening yet pointless documentaries about bleak topics such as prison, terminal illness, and alcoholism, but without Louis giving a point of view or an injection of his usual personality to the subject, his BBC Two specials from 2003 to the present day have lacked the uniqueness he used to bring to the genre.

Theroux has aged since he first popped-up on our screens over a decade and a half ago, and that seems to have brought out a more subdued personality. To add to this progressive vapidity, his subject matter and even his aesthetic is now very dreary and sometimes unwatchable. I mean if you’re going to mope about with a camera crew in a maximum security prison or hospital for the terminally ill, then at least have an opinion on the institution itself or maybe comment on the construct of life, don’t just stand there and make a non-threatening, no-point-of-view having, typical BBC documentary. When watching his recent shows I really do miss the messy-haired Theroux from the nineties, smirking and introducing himself as “Louis from the BBC” trying to mask his deadpan mockery of his subject matter by shielding himself with the once respectable broadcaster. His chirpier incarnation seems to be long gone these days, slowly Louis Theroux is becoming a forgettable face on television. The more he makes his morose one-off shows for the BBC, the more he becomes another bland presenter in the non-committal documentary crowd.

On a side note, like some kind of retrospective clean-up and censorship of the past, Theroux’s documentary ‘When Louis Met… Jimmy’ can’t be found anywhere; deleted from YouTube and unavailable on Netflix or iPlayer. It’s strange that you can watch (in misery I might add) all his shows about ‘Mega Jails’ and ‘Transgender Kids’ but you can’t see him befriend an alleged paedophile and necrophile rapist, we wouldn’t want a darling of the contemporary British Broadcasting Corporation to look like he gets along with the disgraced figurehead of the past now would we?

Back-tracking from his earlier, better work seems to be a common theme of Theroux, he even made a kind of apology in regards to his friendship with Saville recently on a BBC Two special called, err… ‘Saville’. This show (and others like it) seem to be declaring that paedophile rapists only existed in the past, there’s absolutely none in the present day BBC, or any other mainstream broadcaster for that matter. It’s completely idiotic to think that this type of behaviour doesn’t still occur today, like we’ve somehow solved the problem by retrospectively deleting certain ‘Top Of The Pops’ episodes from BBC Four. We’re all probably watching a famous TV personality every week on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, or Sky that’s doing exactly the same thing now that Jimmy Saville allegedly did in the past, but since it hasn’t been “uncovered” or admitted to, the public will act as if all contemporary celebrities are squeaky clean. But I digress.

Going from bad to worse, Theroux’s latest “documentary” titled ‘My Scientology Movie’ (which is currently available to watch on Amazon Video) I have to say is absolutely appalling, in fact I’d go so far in saying that this is one of the most disappointing documentaries I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch. The premise of this “movie” is simple enough; Theroux (along with the rest of the mainstream media… again) tries to denounce a religion, this time Scientology. But because he can’t get access to mainstream Scientologists or the Church Of Scientology itself, instead of either abandoning the documentary or trying harder to gain an introduction or entry to the religion, almost as if he has some kind of pressing deadline, Theroux begins to hire Z-List actors to “play” people he can’t get to. Theroux could have just interviewed Leah Remini since she seems to be the go-to anti-Scientology celebrity these days (and I use the word “celebrity” lightly there), but instead of a genuine investigation and uncovering of the facts, we have a bunch of talentless nobodies pleased as Punch to portray famous members of the religion like Tom Cruise and even leader David Miscavige even though their acting skills are like that of Louis Theroux playing an officer in the gay porn flick ‘Take A Peak’.

I can’t stress how bad Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’ is, he might crack a half-arsed smile now and again but gone are the days of “flirty fishing” with The Family. Watching Louis argue over who owns a certain section of road with a Scientology rep (yes, that actually happens) instead of giving actual evidence of wrongdoing, the whole debacle is the most dull and mediocre pile of garbage to ever call itself a documentary film. And that takes some doing when it comes to a modern day BBC.

Louis Louis, Oh No, You Gotta Go.

9 replies »

  1. I agree that Louis Theroux’s documentaries have gone off the boil, but you can’t blame him for the shit on Savile being removed as he is considered to be an un person by the BBC and others.

    • I’m not blaming the man, but if he had a backbone he’d have at least mentioned the banning of the documentary in his follow-up ‘Saville’. By not acknowledging the removal of his original programme, he’s basically agreeing with the censorship of history…

      “Those who control the present control the past and those who control the past control the future”

  2. I couldn’t disagree more with the article. What a pretentious, hard to please person the author appears to be. Theroux’ shows continue to stand out from the horrible drivel of 90% of current television.
    As for “Louis appears to have aged”….WTF? How old is the author? Nineteen?

    • Your opinion makes no sense since I preferred Theroux’s more down-to-earth style shown in his earlier documentaries. Surely pratting around with “lifers” trying to appear meaningful and hard-hitting is the kind of crap that appeals to someone who is pretentious?

      And by the way when I comment on someone’s “age” it isn’t about wrinkles and saggy skin, it’s about someone getting stereotypically old i.e. dull and boring rather than energetic and lively. I think both those attributes apply to the present day Louis Theroux. Maybe take a look at ‘My Scientology Movie’ and compare that to something like his ‘Infomercials’ episode of ‘Weird Weekends’.

  3. Nope. Still like him. Why does he have to drive an opinion home? I think the way he just lets things happen is effective. And I particularly like the way he talks to vulnerable people. Lovely manner and good pace.

    • I never said he should drive an opinion home, it just bothers me that he picks overly depressing topics these days. When he made the Scientology documentary, I thought finally it’s back to old-school Theroux but it wasn’t, very disappointing compared to his early stuff (Weird Weekends).

  4. i long for him to return to the weird weekends style, so i agree with the majority of what you’ve said. i miss that old, approach and his demeanour. the demeanour i miss the most. that quirky silly innocence. maybe when he was criticised for doing that with the saville documentary-the original one, and louis felt guilty he had not seen the signs of saville being a paedophille-maybe that caused louis to age inside over night. if so, then i despise everyone who criticised him for that, as louis did nothing wrong. if anything louis’s innocence allowed him to get closer to the man than the rest of media to show his real behaviour. which itself when you watch it gives visual clues as to saville’s disposition. when i watched it when it aired, i certainly saw clues. and thats not in retrospect, i mean in real time, i thought savile was not just odd, but filthy old man type who would stick his hands down someones pants without permission. the innocent approach allowed him to be let into these peoples lives as louis didnt take a moral standoffish approach but was warm and got his hands dirty, really got involved. he shot guns, he had his nudes done to become a wannabee porn star, and played a non sexual part in a porn film. theres a massive market right now for louis to return to this, because documentaries everywhere, including bbc are all depressing. we dont need depressing all the time. this light hearted quirky fair of louis theroux was wonderful, it made him my favourite documentary maker. louis had a quirky innocent charm that disarmed people, especially in america, so louis got past their natural defences towards the media to show him their fringe lives. i dont think louis intended to mock them. probably the neo nazis yes-but the others louis always brought out the good in say the ufologists, he showed what he admired about them, and he would follow up with them years later. he genuinely cared about those people-like the ufo guy who claimed to channel alien broadcasts. and louis was saddened when he saw the decline of the man, but happy he was still around and still involved with that. and his followups with the most hated family in america-his three docs on them over the years-was in my top favourites.though i feel louis failed to embed himself in as much with them, and his questions often didnt work, e.g. he alientated the church pastor and barely got to speak to him at all. he would have been better pretending to or attempting to see about the religion e.g. as a open minded potentail convert-like the porn approach. then he may gotten past the defensiveness of them, especially to question the main man-the father of the family-the pastor phelps alot more. louis has a fascination with religions, which is why doing the scientology film was bang on the right topic for him. he finds religious faith fascinating and has expressed he wishes he could have such a faith because of the comfort and community it brings people. so that draws louis to those kinds of people. so why the hell has louis stayed away from that? has that drawing towards that stopped because of age, because of being married and living in london now? i dont know. but i worked in journalism for ten years overseas, on a low level, printed news though,not tv, and a little radio.

    so i will continue to try to coax him back to weird weekends.and will let you know if i have any success or any significant feedback from louis. i dont know him personally nor have ever met him. except a few email exchanges when i needed some info. i’ve had some very short exchanges with him,on this subject in question-the weird weekends, but nothing significant in response. weird weekends and the ‘with the hamiltons’ style, is still an utterly unique documentary approach that nobody has done then or since. and the floury of informal bbc documentary makers e.g. stacey dooley are always on depressing subjects and she doesnt get involved like louis got involved in gangster rap or porn, or the ufo stuff. louis really embedded with the people, lived with them, no one else has done that, e.g. like with the hamiltons. i mean what a scoop that was with the hamiltons, to be living with them effectively when they were arrested on suspicion of rape. louis’s approach makes such scoops possible. i also though with the scientology film that it was back to the old topics-i especially loved when he tackled weird cults-or religions,-those were my favourite.i still think the scientology one is a massive improvement on recent fair because it’s not the bleak depressing subjects we’ve had from thereux for the last ten years. i accept he didnt manage to get into the church as a journalist, but he did get the main ex scientologists, the guy who was basically the leaders right hahdman to be the main informant, as well as another prominent ex scientologist, and with them they staged what went on in the hole. so the documentary did demonstrate and recreate some real events that went on ‘in ‘the hole’ which the most brutal punishment area for high level ‘clergy;.the philosphy of scientilogy towards those who oppose them was very well exposed and presented, and that did give a new insight into why scientologists follow people with a camerman and say nothing and trail people for years, it’s in order to pressurise them into giving up, to put a hundred times more pressure on them than they are on scientology. also we saw at the end how the scientology team brought his adopted child into it, a veiled threat, which really disturbed him. louis got that ex scientologist on board and not only as pretty much the highest ranking one in the clergy you can get-and he was the head of the auditing technology as well, and he demonstrated and reenacted the auditing treatment sessions of scientology in the documentary so we got to see how they do it, and how the objective is to build resilience in scientologists. that intense and dominateering demeanour all scientologists have is created in these so called treatment sessions-i.e. when in pairs taking insults from each other. we also saw the extent of the violence of scientology’s long time leader. so there were many positives for me, and this was a big improvement. its not weird weekends, but still better. and louis seemed less dreary abit more light hearted here. and he seemed abit more willing to stir up trouble with his inquisitive questioning. i feel louis has in recent times become too scared of offending his interviewees but in this one, he was more willing to go further with his questions. again an improvement. its not like we are going to see an immediate jump back to weird weekends level in one go. i enjoyed the scientology film. i learnt some new things, i understand scientology;s approach to its ex members and the media far better than before, despite having read and seen plenty of previous stuff on scientology. so louis did something right.also louis had three ex scienology clergy in the dccumentary, whereas the ex scientologist you mentioned has already received so much media treatment that it would have been pointless louis interviewing her.

    i dont think anyone from media has managed to infiltrate scientology. There was a danish mole who managed to embed himself in north korea-at the highest levels of government there, the only person who has managed it, i interviewed him by email only for a short newspaper piece when i was living in Ukraine. He was called by the British intelligence services as the greatest amateur intelligence operation ever. but that required a decade of commitment as well as almost costing his marriage as he had to lie to everyone including his wife. now it wouldnt take quite as much to infiltrate scientology church but would be a second tier of infiltration, as scientology employs sophisticated security surveillance on its members and ex members. im sure they use private investigators who are usually ex police officers. but louis cant do it, as he is a well known bbc documentary maker. and he lived in los angeles for many many years. i think moving back to london may be where it also went wrong for him. when i say wrong-i mean he is still successful and respected, but from our point of view, those of us who enjoyed his earlier work. i want to see that earlier style and also for louis to increase frequency of his documentaries. i wonder how ion earth he makes a living with so infrequently he makes docs now. although i suppose its like minor actors who all work ad hoc make decent money from a commercial, or a theatre run, and that money had to be spread out til their next job. and ive worked with such ad hoc actors but they always had another more stable part time job on the side. finally, louis could seek weird weekends documentaries in Europe-which he hasnt ever done im sure theres plenty of weird stuff in Germany for example. he could embed with some neo nazis in germany or italy-find the quirkey side to the right wing populist rise in Europe post syrian refugee crisis, and countless cults and extreme religious factions he could look at. he hasnt tackled any Muslim stuff either. so he could be more daring. and if the BBC act too politically correct and dont want it, im sure some broadcaster will e.g. netflix. but i would hope to see it to BBC two or even BBC four so its universally available on the iplayer and not a subscription service, as i feel louis belongs on mainstream tv, just like another even more beloved documentary maker david attenbourugh. let’s hope we can turn louis around and see the old louis again soon.

    • On your point about Saville: I disagree with people seeing “clues” in interviews etc. once it’s been deemed they’re guilty of a crime. You could pick a celebrity at random, trawl through their soundbites and find similar suspect quotes. The judicial system is what we have to determine guilt, not crappy BBC documentaries.

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