This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14 October 2017.
LOUIS THEROUX: DARK STATES – HEROIN TOWN: Sunday, BBC Two
SNOWFALL: Sunday, BBC Two
When you think of Sunday nights on BBC Two, you probably envision genteel arts documentaries or bittersweet Brenda Blethyn films. You don’t imagine a blizzard of Class A drugs exploding from your screen. Yet that’s what we got last Sabbath, with a heavy narcotic double-bill.
In LOUIS THEROUX: DARK STATES – HEROIN TOWN, our inquisitive interlocutor visited a depressed Appalachian industrial community where heroin use is rife. It’s an increasingly typical victim of, in Theroux’s sombre words, “the most deadly drug epidemic in US history.”
He met tragic addicts such as Curtilia, who spends more than $200 a day on her habit. She confessed to Theroux that her drug-dealing boyfriend, who hovered ominously in the background, was physically abusive. She was essentially his slave.
As Theroux watched her shoot up, he gently enquired, “There’s nothing I could say that would persuade you not to do that?” She shook her head with a weary smile.
Later he met her elderly great uncle. He loved Curtilia with all his heart. She loved him too, but she needed his money. He knew what she was using it for. She wept when this softly-spoken old man confessed to Theroux that he was enabling her demise. It was heart-breaking.
Theroux’s point was clear. Most of these addicts turned to heroin after becoming dependent on prescription painkillers wantonly prescribed by their doctors. Following a crackdown on this irresponsible practice, illegal drugs became their only way of numbing the pain. The multi-billion-dollar Big Pharma companies signed their death warrants.
To give us at least some comfort that decent professionals still exist, Theroux met a doctor who cares for recovering pregnant addicts. His work is vital, as one in ten babies born in this area are dependent on opiates.
He also followed a fire emergency team who were constantly tasked with reviving overdose victims, presumably because the local ambulance service couldn’t cope on its own with the sheer volume of critically ill addicts. The sympathetic agent he spoke to looked understandably tired.
This was a typically sad, humane, unflinching Theroux report. When it comes to presenting visions of unadulterated hopelessness, he has few peers.
Crack cocaine is the drug of choice in SNOWFALL, a new drama from Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton.
Set in South Central LA in 1983, it follows a black teenager as he shifts from soft low-level drug dealing to Devil’s Dandruff distribution. He’s the archetypal good kid getting in over his head. Naturally, his surname is Saint.
Dramas set in the recent past often have a tendency to overdo period details, but Snowfall boasts an authentic sense of time and place. There’s a nice selection of classic rap and soul on the soundtrack. You can feel the ghetto-blasting summer heat.
Comparisons with The Wire are inevitable, especially when TV critics insist on making them. But what can a poor boy do? Any new American crime drama involving drugs, troubled law enforcers and a prominent black cast is destined to be judged against that monumental classic. Snowfall is more generic and less Byzantine in its storytelling reach.
It also shows, initially at least, why people enjoy taking drugs, whereas The Wire was more concerned with the grim realities of addiction, poverty and crime. I’m sure Snowfall will tackle these issues eventually, but for now it feels like a slick facsimile of David Simon’s angry masterpiece.
Despite my nagging misgivings, it does show some promise. It’s well-made, the performances are fine, and even the clichés are acceptable if you don’t take it too seriously.
It also serves as a counterpoint to Theroux’s new series. Snowfall pinpoints a time when hard drugs were beginning to become more commonplace on the working-class streets of America.
34 years later, Theroux raked over the devastating legacy of that narcotic epidemic.