The Student
Review
Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge
by Rufus Lee-Browne, 3/10/20

⭐⭐⭐

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It is normally a godsend whenever Louis Theroux returns to our screens. The veteran  journalist, with a résumé of documentaries that detail the lives of the unorthodox, iconoclastic and heretic; rarely fails to disappoint. Throughout his career, Theroux has immersed himself amongst Scientologists, neo-Nazis, porn stars and prisoners; each time documenting just what makes his subjects tick, often detailed unsparingly.  

Over the summer lockdown, he applied the line of questioning that made him so successful to a striking array of celebrities in his BBC Sounds podcast, Grounded with Louis Theroux. There does not seem to be a single type of person Theroux has pointed the camera (or microphone) at. 

Consistent with much of the public, Theroux seems to have spent his summer months  reminiscing over his previous lives, the result of which is his latest series Louis Theroux: Life on the  Edge (BBC Two). He is the sort of person to not be held back by conventional limitations, whether physical or social. There are very few other documentary makers willing to participate in a borderline orgy just for the sake of their film. However, Theroux seems unusually constrained by the lockdown. Where we might otherwise enjoy the delights of a zany culture nestled deep in some garden-variety American suburb, the pandemic has instead curbed his creativity to a somewhat prosaic clip-show.  

Life on the Edge presents Theroux’s quarter-of-a-century worth of filmmaking through four thematic tours which explore: belief, crime, the dark side of pleasure, and family. We revisit some of his wildest interviewees: the Rev Robert Short brazenly communicating with other-worldly beings through the strange vessel of his body; the frighteningly sociopathic “motivational speaker” Marshall Sylver, revealed to be  nothing more than a charlatan; or rapper-turned-pimp Mello T.

It’s delightful to watch Louis Theroux mature as a documentary maker. You can compare him with large-rimmed glasses and floppy hair to the moments where his face has aged and the topics he dwells on shift to a more serious tone. The weird and wacky gives over to problem-gambling, neo-Nazism and institutionalised racism in the  American legal system.  Life on the Edge provides viewers with a rare chance to delve inside the Louis Theroux brand and his signature interview flair, without having to watch twenty-five years worth of footage.  

Theroux refined his technique since his earliest days on Michael Moore’s TV Nation and Wild  Weekends to create a persona of subtle disingenuity that permits him to approach even the most  outlandish of subjects with adroit intrigue, without having to compromise the integrity of his series. Sure, having naked photos shot to secure your debut performance in a pornographic film may not be conventional for a documentary, but how else would the viewer get to  understand the inner workings of the porn industry in such an enticingly creative manner?  He has never produced the sort of flat-pack documentaries found elsewhere on the BBC, and Theroux’s range as a journalist shown in these clips is a true testament to this. 

So why then does Life on the Edge still feel remarkably shallow? On its surface, the series is nothing more than a glorified fan edit. Scattered among the scenes from other series are  moments of Theroux rummaging around his home for various ‘souvenirs’ of sorts from his documentaries and brief moments of reflective pause.  

Yet, given the precedent Theroux has set for himself, particularly off the back of his recent  podcast, these moments offer little more than extra detail on the production of his previous  work. Understandably, the limitations of lockdown meant that Theroux couldn’t have  produced the same calibre of documentary, but surely we could have been permitted slightly more insight into the mystifying mind that is Louis Theroux, especially over his life’s work?  

Theroux has often gone through great lengths to challenge the television viewer with the esoteric and the offbeat. It feels like a shame not being able to glimpse with greater cognisance at his thought  processes, especially now, as he revisits his greatest hits. Subsequently, the series lacks any real backbone other than the pithy cast, and Theroux’s reserve seemingly lets it down.  

The series is still worth the watch for any fan of the quirky Theroux brand, but I look forward to his next take in a post-Covid world.

Image: Claire Boxall via Wikimedia Commons