Documentary makers and the suspense they can craft with strong work find themselves in a rough patch. Investigative journalism is in a tough state. Gone are the days of Watergate scandals and the role of journalists as bearers of the people’s rights and the fourth estates. There are few still working in the field of video journalism that can provide the quality of the prime time, but Louis Theroux has been a typically stalwart man of quality documentaries. His lull was concerning, chasing topics of Joe Exotic and retreading old ground to see how his meta and meme work was getting on. He has shifted focus once more, back to strong journalism and unbiased confrontations with fringe groups. He has come full circle with Louis Theroux: Forbidden America – Extreme and Online, where his impartiality comes off as sly confusion in a grand documentary series that will be a treat for audiences wanting to know more about worrying groups.
Theroux does well to capture the action and differing reactions of alt-right performers. He rattles the cage of the likes of Beardson Beardly by asking simple questions that could be dismissed with simple answers. There is a fascinating display of thin-skinned machismo associated with that brand of political view, and Theroux’s documentary does well to tap into that and the impact it has on a fringe group of American youth culture. Theroux has shifted his work from yuppy and awkward young adult to concerned and disappointed father figure, and the dynamic between him and the likes of alt-right personalities is an interesting focus to take. It goads and baits the right keys out of those caricatures with almost no effort, almost as though they’re spinning their own web of degeneracy and getting tangled in it. Theroux is merely pointing that out.
It is hard to feel sympathy for many of the people Theroux interviews, even those who have reformed their ideological stance and tried to move away from a movement that has some questionable stances highlighted without Theroux’s prodding. Soon it devolves into a dive into humour and the meaning of it, briefly depicting the language used by these groups and their desire to brush it off as their chain of humour and the linguistics employed by a new generation. It is no coincidence that Theroux, without much active choice, manages to pair the alt-right with horrendously poor qualities. Baked Alaska shows himself as the most fascinatingly braindead individual, wanting a 22-year-old to run for President of the United States and cowering as his selected community of hard-right trolls egg him on. But while on the camera of others are on him and wider journalistic bodies approach, he bends like a human palm tree and tries to control a crowd he never normally would.
Louis Theroux: Forbidden America – Extreme and Online may look as though it platforms unsavoury views, but what it does is cut the vile opinions off from its internet-based core. Any bastion of good journalism is the spotlighting and uncritical, documentary profiling of bad or concerning ideas. Outsiders come in, are disgusted, confused or concerned by the material seen, and learn from that. Theroux is still at the peak of the mountain in that style and regard, and it shows within Louis Theroux: Forbidden America – Extreme and Online, a documentary far better than the work he has output in the past few years. Just when it looked like his work was beginning to slow and take hold of the meme culture it now identifies with, Theroux shunts that image out of the way and turns out a very credible bit of work. Being ignorant of the problems Theroux brings up is not the same as shining a spotlight on it and making sure people are aware of the uncomfortable truths that linger online.