A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28th March 2015.
Louis Theroux: By Reason Of Insanity: Sunday, BBC Two
I've long been of the opinion that Louis Theroux is one of TV's finest interviewers. His gently probing style is often categorised as 'faux-naive', but that isn't very fair or accurate, especially these days.
While he certainly made his name as a seemingly callow investigator of strange sub-cultures and celebrities, he's since spent over ten years journeying through heavier terrain. Even in his early 'Weird Weekends' phase, his interviewing style was characterised by non-judgemental curiosity and disarming empathy. But that approach is arguably more effective when attached to deeper subject matter.
His latest project is a case in point. A two-part investigation into Ohio's maximum security State Psychiatric Hospital system, Louis Theroux: By Reason Of Insanity is typical of a tried and tested formula in which he visits traditionally closed-off institutions/environments and talks to the inhabitants. This is now his natural milieu, so much so that he's probably spent more of his adult life in the company of inmates, patients, guards and medical professionals than with his own family.
The patients he met on this occasion have been accused of committing serious crimes, some of them horrifically violent, while in the grip of severe mental illness. Judged to be Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity, they've been detained for psychiatric treatment rather than penal rehabilitation. It's hoped that one day they'll be well enough to return to society as stable citizens. But when is a mentally ill patient ready for reintegration?
Typically, Theroux doesn't treat them as freakish novelties to be feared and peered at. Rather, he regards them for what they are – ill, vulnerable people.
While in the grip of schizophrenic delusions, Jonathan murdered his father. He reportedly stabbed him over 40 times. A symptom of his condition is a conspicuous lack of outward emotion, hence why he recounted his horrifying tale almost casually. Theroux noted that Jonathan's inability to project grief and remorse might be deemed shocking by 'normal society' and, if his case should ever go to trial, a judge and jury. An unassuming soul, Jonathan conceded that this might be the case. But what could he do? It was terribly sad.
Softly-spoken Corey was similarly lost. A young man suffering from paranoid delusions and suicidal fantasies, he once attacked a police officer in the hope of being shot dead. Initially Corey claimed he'd only struck the policeman gently with a poker, but Theroux's polite persistence eventually exposed the truth. After being shot twice in the legs, Corey was dismayed that he hadn't yet been killed. So he bludgeoned the man's skull.
“I don't think he works for the police any more,” he said. “I feel awful about that.”
If I were to choose a textbook example of Theroux's skill as an interviewer, it would be that encounter with Corey. Direct yet sensitive, he patiently teases details from his subjects until they reveal an often more disturbing picture. But his digging never feels exploitative.
Even in areas as dark as this, there were moments of absurd humour. Elderly Judith seemed fairly sane until she claimed to be Jesus incarnate. “That didn't come up when we played cards,” deadpanned Theroux.
Meanwhile, on the verge of being released, an understandably anxious patient revealed that he once believed he was receiving psychic instructions – mainly to drive recklessly – from none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. You have to laugh, I suppose.
The unspoken yet readily apparent point hovering over this exercise was the stigma which still surrounds mental illness. While people such as those featured in the programme are receiving treatment from dedicated, trained professionals, politicians and certain portions of the mainstream media still have a long way to go with regards to how they're treated. One need only look at this week's dismaying coverage of the Germanwings Airbus tragedy as proof.
Necessarily inconclusive, this typically humane and nuanced report was Theroux at his thought-provoking best.