Louis Theroux has returned to the BBC with a new documentary series Altered States, this time exploring modern life in the United States. The first episode follows the documentarian as he travels to Portland, the self-proclaimed hipster capital of the world, with the intention of exploring the world of polyamory.
Polyamory, or “ethical non-monogamy”, is the practice of having multiple relationships at the same time. It is founded on trust and honesty with all partners being fully aware of each other’s activities.
Throughout the episode, Theroux visits three couples each with their own unique perspective on polyamory. One interviewee notes early on that polyamory is “not for the faint of heart” – and in all honesty, neither is this episode.
Through his trademark deadpan style and genuine curiosity into people’s’ lives Theroux is able to dive deep into the ins and outs of the relationships. When he firsts meet the polyamorous couples, each group seem entirely happy.
Everyone in the relationships appear to be honest and loving towards each other; they all feel as though they have figured out the best way to maintain healthy relationships.
However, it’s not long before the cracks and holes in the relationships start to show and it becomes increasingly clear to Theroux, and the viewer, that polyamory has a fair few problematic flaws.
Two of the couples interviewed had been in committed relationships before trying polyamory and in both of these cases, the men don not seem particularly content with the decision. In fact, although they say they fully support their wives’ polyamory, and therefore multiple other relationships, they themselves don not practice it.
This all culminates in what is possibly the most excruciatingly awkward exchange on television to date. Jerry, a particularly forlorn looking man, suggests a threesome with his wife and her boyfriend which she quickly shuts down.
All of this could add up to a cynical critique of the lifestyle; however, the way in which Theroux talks and connects with people is anything but. He endeavours to show the viewer a realistic view of polyamory, not a sugar-coated or superficial one.
It is clear some of the relationships on the show are flawed but as the couples themselves note, so are many monogamous ones. It may be a lifestyle which does not suit everyone but that is not to say that there is anything wrong with it in and of itself.
If none of this sounds like your cup of tea though, Altered States is worth a watch just to see Theroux’s reaction to being force fed cheese biscuits topless at a ‘sensual workshop’ where he is rather unsuccessfully reassured that there will be “no genital touching.”
Full of painful awkwardness and bizarre characters, give Theroux’s new special a watch with your boyfriend or girlfriend, no matter how many you might have.
Image: Gaute Singstad via Wikimedia Commons