Louis Theroux’s Altered States – ‘Spellbinding television’

Theroux triumphs once again in this quiet analysis of the uncomfortable and forgotten cells of modern day US society.

Not that I really need to say it, but Louis Theroux is quite a gem of a documentary presenter. Measured and rarely explicitly biased, with an admirable ability to hold back on intense emotion, and an equal willingness to get nipple-deep into truly bizarre situations, make him the perfect quiet, ever-so-slightly critical, though at all times evaluative, observer for such difficult topics as those explored in his most recent BBC series, Altered States (said topics in question being open adoption, polygamous relationships, and assisted suicide). Following on from his previous travels in the US with his 2017 series Dark States, Altered States provides a solid, confident and effortless comeback with equally important and heavy subject matter.

ltEach of the trio of programmes make for difficult yet beautiful viewing in their own right, with the opening episode of ‘Love Without Limits’ highlighting both the ongoing euphoria of polyamoury coupled with its paradoxically crushing effects on those who are unwillingly caught up in the middle of it’s bizarre, undefined wrath, alongside the potential selfishness or selflessness people can treat it with (and allow to manifest within them with regards to it). The third episode, ‘Take My Baby’, is harrowing in places but perhaps at the same time the most uplifting – it’s hard not to break out into a smile when watching a calmly gleeful young boy setting conscious eyes onto his mother for the first time in a US shopping mall, before running towards her and eagerly embracing. But it’s the midpoint of the trio that really knocks it out of the metaphorical park: ‘Choosing Death’ (with contrastingly perhaps the weakest name) is a deeply moving and perfectly handled exploration into the almost subterranean world of assisted suicide in the US. Something about the progression of the episode – mirroring the few people it follows – who you get to know so very well – but still not half as well as their loved ones did – and seeing them eventually reach the inevitable, is nothing short of devastating. It raises a lot of questions, and I think for Theroux this is also the case; clearly at points he is greatly struggling to measure and manage the literal nature of the occurrences he documents. Nonetheless, as always, Louis doesn’t let this colour his presenting, always rounding off to an open conclusion with no declared ‘right’ answer, which seems only fair – how are you possibly supposed to land on one for such a topic?

The cinematography of the series should also be commended for its gentle, observational and personal feel – and Wesley Pollitt consequently does a great job as Series Cinematographer and Assistant Director. Overall the gentle, sincere feel further highlights just why such documentaries are so deeply important to watch – because the people within them are treated just as sincerely by others in their lives. Theroux, as always, captures a very special neutral sentimentality, and through nudging it gently a tiny bit closer to the camera lense, yet refraining from shameless exploitation, he creates spellbinding television.

‘Altered States’ aired on BBC 2 from 23rd November – 22nd December 2018. It’s available to watch on BBC Iplayer until April 2019.

-Toby Moran Mylett

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