Wondering what Louis Theroux got up to during lockdown? Stuck at home like the rest of us, the award-winning filmmaker had no way to continue his prolific documentary-making spree by immersing himself in extreme subcultures or finding and befriending those on the fringes of society. So, instead of a new documentary, the BBC has pulled together a sort of COVID compilation, a look back at Louis’ greatest hits with a few follow-ups and some hindsight musings from an older, bearded, salt-and-pepper Louis.
Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge is a trip down memory lane divided into four episodes, each featuring footage from some of the most distinctive and divisive moments in Theroux’s long career. We begin with Louis pottering around at home, unearthing some of his old research and thinking about why he has always been drawn to people with extreme beliefs.
His first ever solo documentary (part of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends for the BBC) took him to the US to meet right-wing anti-government patriots and survivalists. A small band of like-minded and heavily armed folk had formed a small commune called Almost Heaven. This is mid '90s, Clinton-era America and in isolated Idaho Louis trudges through snow to meet one of Almost Heaven’s leaders: Mike Cain. Wary at first, Cain warms up and gives Theroux a tour around his humble home, inviting him to eat dinner with his kids. He seems an easy-going and affable – if trigger-happy – man (he says Americans without guns would be like the British without tea). It’s only when Cain starts expounding his views on the New World Order (a conspiracy theory about the emergence of a totalitarian government, usually with anti-Semitism at its core) and the coming apocalypse (he predicted all-out war before the year 2000) that you start to both fear Cain and fear for him.
Twenty-four years later over Skype, Cain tells Theroux of his disappointment with Almost Heaven’s far from utopian end. His fellow members turned out to be "a bunch of scared blowhards" and were "never a united community". He is still adamant about the government's despotism, citing the laws about wearing face masks during the pandemic as an example of tyrannical rule. And yes, you guessed it, he’s a Trump supporter.
Lots of Louis' work has involved race, from meeting with Black nationalists in New York to learning shooting with the repugnant Boer nationalists in South Africa. In Louis and the Nazis, one of Theroux's first full-length BBC Two specials, he headed to California to meet neo-Nazis. There he experienced individuals unafraid and unashamed of their abhorrent views. After watching back a scene where Louis was aggressively threatened by a family trying to find out if he is Jewish, it is impossible not to feel frustration at modern-day Louis as he considers the "interesting quality" their views brought to the film. Now, at one of the most important points in the history of race, extremists like this family are no longer on the fringes of society. As someone who once immersed himself in this world, one feels Louis could offer viewers at least some analysis on the rise of far-right hate groups.
In Louis and the Nazis, Louis also met white supremacist mom April, who moulded her pre-teen blonde twins into Nazi pop group, Prussian Blue. Seventeen years after the initial documentary aired, it’s no less chilling to see the kids eating sandwiches and drinking soda, chitchatting about a computer game called Ethnic Cleansing. But again, reflecting from a 2020 lockdown, Theroux merely muses that "April is April" and "incapable of change". He does, however, call the now 28-year-old twins. Both have publicly renounced all they said and did as brainwashed minors and apologise for their actions.
Theroux has said of the series: "Lockdown gave me the time and space to do this. It’s been a strange and fascinating couple of months working on this, and especially fun to dig through old episodes of Weird Weekends – programmes I made in the mid '90s, when the world was a very different place."
I’m not sure there is much to be gained from this type of retrospective. It’s interesting to see Louis at home, feeding his kids peas and chips and plundering home movie footage and research but without much reflection from the man himself on what his subjects and films mean in today's politically charged world, it feels a little flat. Personally, I think there’s more to be gained from rewatching the original shows in their entirety and coming to your own conclusions.
Because although the subjects vary wildly across Louis' early films, the mission to understand how and why people behave the way they do is always the same. There's always an attempt to get past people’s outer layers and to discover their underlying vulnerability, grief and humanity. At the heart of his work is the quest to find what unites us – which is something we need badly in times of such divide. So sure, give Life on the Edge a watch (his house really is very nice) but perhaps do it as a reminder of which films of his to check out as a whole. Between Netflix and iPlayer, they're nearly all out there.
Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge begins on BBC Two on Sunday 6th September