wed 26/06/2019

Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity, BBC Two

Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity, BBC Two

The presenter teases out the answers to the questions the viewer wants to ask

Louis Theroux: a guileless demeanour BBC/Freddie Claire

Louis Theroux just wants to make good television. This may seem an obvious thing to say of a programme-maker, but many programme-makers concerned with the kind of human interest story that Theroux has made his own, often want to do more than this. They want to understand subject and motive, to get under the skin of a thing, or perhaps somehow resolve an issue. They believe, and sometimes perhaps they may even be right, that this in itself will produce good television, or at least go most of the way there. 

Theroux’s ambitions are clearly much simpler. He wants to tease out stories – stories that are alarming, tragic, awful, funny, sad, horrific – about subjects that are often at the extreme ends of the human story. And even when they’re not that extreme he still teases out the thing of interest.

The importance of teasing out the thing of interest reminds me of a Guardian interview last year with the actor/comedian John Sessions. Sessions, probably by dint of the fact that he was once a regular on the Channel 4 series Whose Line is it Anyway?, coupled more obviously with the fact that he was known as an  “alternative comedian” – was always assumed to a bit of a liberal lefty luvvie type. Naturally.

Theroux, whose guileless demeanour is his winning card, didn’t appear overly perturbed

The interviewer didn’t seem at all interested in teasing out the thing of interest, or perhaps just wasn’t capable of spotting what it was, so he just dropped in the fact that Sessions, now 60, was a UKIP voter. Just that – no follow-up, no questions. But all the rest of the stuff in the interview was barely marginally interesting in the light of this one stand-out thing. And the interviewer just glided past it. Odd. You wouldn’t get that with Lynn Barber, though Barber is the last interviewer you’d want to see interviewing a vulnerable person in a sensitive situation, which means you probably wouldn’t want to stick Barber in a psychiatric hospital with delusional patients.

Theroux, on the other hand, is an interviewer who is direct – addressing the things of interest, as well as sensitive – responsive to whoever he’s interviewing. In last week’s episode of By Reason of Insanity, which took Theroux inside an Ohio state psychiatric hospital housing patients who’ve committed serious crimes but can’t be tried because of their illness, Theroux met 39-year-old Jonathan, who’d stabbed his father to death seven years earlier. 

Jonathan was polite and obliging; he answered questions thoughtfully. Yet his facial muscles barely moved when he talked. This made social interaction not only feel awkward, but, to the outsider at least, threatening. But Theroux, whose guileless demeanour is his winning card, didn’t appear overly perturbed. First he expressed the feeling that he “wanted to see more guilt” (“is that bad?” he quickly added); later he asked Jonathan whether he had loved his father – a question Jonathan told him he’d never been asked in all his time at the facility, which, obviously to us, seems astonishing. So he thought about it carefully, and said yes.

In last night’s second and concluding episode, Theroux met patients in the forensic unit, those who’d been, along with other mental health issues, diagnosed with personality disorders, which aren’t mitigations in law. He met Dean, who’d sexually assaulted his mother seven years earlier when he was 18. Unlike Jonathan, or most of the other inmates Theroux talked to, Dean confessed to feeling shame and guilt about his crime. He agreed with Theroux that it was an "unbelievable story", thinking that the presenter had meant “like it’s a farce, or something”. “More like a Greek tragedy,” Theroux replied. Later we met Dean’s mother. She'd laid out her son’s childhood photos on the kitchen table. She visits him regularly, but now believes he did what he did just because “he wanted to”.  

By Reason of Insanity was excellent television. It was sensitive, sad, compelling. And though it made us feel for the broken lives of these patients, it didn’t allow us to forgot the horror of the crimes that had been committed, nor its victims.

Fisun Güner on Twitter

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