This month has seen the return of much-loved documentarian (and national treasure) Louis Theroux to the BBC. In this latest trilogy of documentaries, it is clear his work has continued down its trajectory of a more serious and sombre path as he examines Heroin Town, Trafficking Sex, and Murder in Milwaukee. If you had any faith that the American Dream was still alive and kicking, then these programs pick it up, shake it in your face and show you that it is very much limp and lifeless. These are American stories through and through. They show the inverse of what our collective conscious has been promised that America will be. However, the suffering we find at its core could be found anywhere. We are used to Theroux tackling strange topics and interviewing eccentric people with an often humorous effect. However, Dark States is the Greek tragedy of the Theroux anthology – its tone is desperate and it will leave you wondering how exactly these situations came about.
The first episode sees Theroux visit Huntington, Virginia, a blue-collar industrial town ravaged not only by the recession but also by an epidemic of heroin addiction, swept in like an eleventh plague by the overused prescription painkillers. Huntington, once a picture of small town American life now faces one of the biggest drug problems the States has ever seen. The figures are quite astounding, with in one in four residents suffering from an opiate addiction and one in 10 babies being born addicted to the substance. Any story about drug addiction is going to make for disturbing viewing, yet it is hard to escape the particular cruelty of Huntington’s. Most of the addiction has stemmed from painkillers prescribed to those injured whilst working in the heavy industries that fuelled the town’s economy.
The second episode looks at sex trafficking in Houston. It is an epicentre for trafficking, with one out of five victims of this crime coming through this city. Theroux examines all the cogs that turn the wheel of this pernicious industry. He talks to both pimps and prostitutes, and begins to uncover the complex relations that make Houston a hub of prostitution.
Finally, Theroux goes to Milwaukee, where the homicide rate is 12 times the national average. The number of murders spiked dramatically in Milwaukee two years ago and it is unclear why, but a potent mix of lax gun laws, segregation, poverty, and run-down local schools seems to have led the town down this sad and violent path. Theroux’s filming comes at a time of heightened tension, after the police shooting of an African American man named Sylville Smith, which brought racism and institutionalised racism to the centre of the national conversation. Theroux sheds light on America’s complicated and fraught relationship with guns. The image of Milwaukee resident, Shawnda, holding the rifle she keeps by her bathtub, is such a strange and extreme vision. However, the issues that are so intensely amplified in Milwaukee make sound waves all across America as well.
In many ways, it seems odd for a documentarian who is so well-known for looking at wrestling and swingers to now be tackling some of the most pertinent issues affecting America. Murder and Milwaukee even features a shocking image of a homicide victim still lying in the place he was shot, along with footage of the immediate reaction of his devastated family. There does seem to be concern that this could be in bad taste and insensitive, however, Theroux has always taken his subjects seriously and even his more lighthearted documentaries are tinged with a certain sober contemplation. In his old work, those whom society may laugh or cringe at are approached with objective sincerity, and now he does the same with those that society has forgotten. The three programmes are conducted on a human level; Theroux’s detached and non-judgemental inquiry makes the interviewees feel comfortable to open up to him and makes the viewer feel comfortable with the questioning they are seeing. Dark States is a must (if very bleak) seet that encapsulates the melancholic mood of America’s current social and cultural climate as our focus is brought to particular people’s suffering. However, as the individual stories unfurl, questions naturally arise about the systems that allow for whole areas to be inflicted with these problems. We gain insight into the why this might be from the interviewees and from the interviewer’s final rumination in the closing minutes. We can only hope that this series encourages serious conversation about the isolated social issues that have become ignored systemic failures. So, if you are yet to catch up with Dark States, get on it and gain a deeper understanding and objective observation of those whom society has left behind, and some of the most impenetrable issues that America must face (and then maybe put on Theroux’s’ Weird Weekends and watch him sing “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” to Craig Revel Horwood to cheer yourself back up again).