Louis Theroux is back for more. The certified National Treasure has returned to BBC Two with a new trio of television specials, entitled Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America. The premise squats somewhere between his sensationalistic early work (Weird Weekends, which saw him plumb the lives of society’s peculiar outsiders) and his later, more sombre documentaries, which covered topics like grief, addiction, and euthanasia. The unifying theme of Forbidden America is the internet: how the age of unfettered social media has transformed fringe subcultures in the US.
The first episode, “Extreme and Online”, aired last night (Sunday 13 February), and saw Theroux interviewing incendiary far-right figures; virulent and unapologetic white nationalists in all but name. To some extent, this idea seems like a slam dunk for Theroux, whose past shows tackling the prejudices of the Westboro Baptist Church rank among his most popular and acclaimed. The second episode, “Rap’s New Frontline”, focuses on Florida’s trap music scene, and the gang violence and social media feuds that surround it. “Porn’s MeToo” airs at the end of the month, and looks at how social media has been used as a means of exposing abuse in the sex industry. But while Theroux’s interviews often make for quietly electric television, there’s reason to question his choices of subject.
Theroux’s idiosyncratic interview style has long been his strongest asset. He’s soft-spoken. He’s personable. By all appearances, he’s genuinely interested in the people he interviews. When it comes to the more problematic interviewees who’ve come across him, Theroux’s approach is often characterised as “giving ’em enough rope”. But a special like “Extreme and Online” exposes the weaknesses in this approach. The interviewees, consisting of social media stars and self-professed “trolls”, thrive on the economies of exposure. Theroux’s presence energises them and gives them something to rail against. At points, you can see them riling up Theroux nearly as much as he does them. What purpose then, does giving them all this rope serve? Not quite hanging, but rather autoerotic asphyxiation.
This isn’t a problem confined to the bulletproof egomania of social media stars. The limitations of Theroux’s interviewing style were first laid bare with his infamous profile of Jimmy Savile, When Louis Met Jimmy, which aired in 2000. After the full extent of Savile’s heinous crimes came to light after his death in 2011, Theroux discussed his relationship with Savile at length, wrestling with his guilt over having been charmed by such a twisted villain. But the fact is, When Louis Met Jimmy was far from a puff piece. Savile was caught on camera talking about beating people up in nightclubs as well as venting bizarre and sinister opinions on romantic relationships. It is hard to imagine that anyone could watch this and come away with the notion that he was anything other than a profoundly disturbing creep, even if he denied the suggestions of abuse when Theroux briefly raised them. Theroux’s Savile interview wasn’t the first or last opportunity to hold Savile accountable for his crimes; blame for the failure to bring Savile to justice must be shared between the police and the BBC. But the fact that Theroux could release such an ostensibly damning interview to no real-world repercussions speaks to a fatal flaw in his understated “stitch-em-up” approach. After you’ve tried to shame the unshamable, what next?
By the time of “Extreme and Online”, Theroux has become even more careful to ensure his audience doesn’t miss the point. “I fundamentally disagree with what you promote, and what you stand for,” he tells Nick Fuentes, one of the far-right personalities he gets to know. “But I’m here because I’m curious about you.” Later in the episode, he tells Baked Alaska, a controversial right-wing media personality who live-streamed the 2021 Capitol Hill insurrection, that he finds his work “deeply poisonous”. In a time when media literacy is often lacking from the public discourse, I suppose it’s helpful to spell out exactly what the viewer ought to feel about people like this. It’s an attempt to hold them to account. But I’m not sure it’s a successful one. There is no catharsis. No “gotcha”. Just more self-righteous rage from the subjects and more weary incredulity from Theroux.
Pre-empting this possible line of criticism, Theroux wrote a piece in The Guardian wrestling with the decision to give people like Nick Fuentes a platform. To his credit, Theroux has always been clearly and openly self-analytical about his choices – a rare quality in celebrity creatives. In the piece he admits that his “decision to put some potentially dangerous and inflammatory figures on BBC Two primetime might appear flat-out weird and irresponsible”, but argues that “troubled, sometimes dangerous people are legitimate subjects of journalistic inquiry” and “with the right approach, speaking to people who have done terrible things can be a totally valid exercise”.
Theroux claims the documentary is necessary because of “what [the far-right subjects’] existence says about the world we are living in”. But getting up close and personal with these people says little that scrutinising them abstractly from afar would not. A number of Theroux’s interviewees reject the label of “white nationalist”, despite proudly espousing views that constitute textbook white nationalism. It’s unclear quite what Theroux hopes to achieve by pressing them on this point – the distinction is, as he says, semantic. There are a few insights about how far-right groups are structured and how followings are cultivated online, but again, nothing that necessitates these protracted one-to-ones.
Social media is such a powerful, all-encompassing force in our society that it merits constant and extensive scrutiny. Theroux’s instinct to make it the focus of a new series is a smart one. But in the case of “Extreme and Online”, it feels like Theroux is simply spoiling for a fight. He seems more concerned with the perpetrators of hate speech than its victims.
Ultimately, it is Theroux’s words that stick in the mind: “I’m here because I’m curious about you.” Maybe, when all is boiled down, it is just as simple as that. But maybe it shouldn’t be.
‘Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America’ airs at 9pm on Sunday on BBC Two. Episode one, ‘Extreme and Online’, can be streamed on iPlayer now