Last week, the ever popular Louis Theroux returned to our TV screens for a one off documentary exploring the issue of alcoholism. In common with much of his work, Theroux, rather than drawing on statistics and expert evidence chose to explore this topic by talking to those affected themselves – the people experiencing alcoholism and various associated others (spouses, partners, boyfriends etc.) In watching this latest offering, I was left with a whole range of different impressions and emotions in comparison to his earlier work.
Charting Louis Theroux’s career to date is an intriguing exercise. In his earlier output, Theroux came across as somewhat smug and sneering as he engaged with various perceived fringe groups in western society, whether they be ‘survivalists’ or those who believe in the existence of UFOs. This trend for engaging with alternative sects continued throughout Theroux’s career into the early and mid-2000s, minus the smugness and sneering I’m glad to say.
Whether it was leftfield groups or charismatic celebrities, the Oxford graduate soon built something of an imitable trademark style – altogether emotionally neutral, deadpan yet also charming and relatable. This odd mix of qualities perhaps helps explain why he has been able not only to gain access to notorious groups and people but also able to build relationships with them, bringing out their human side alongside their oddities. All of this has made for rather compelling viewing over the years. Did ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ continue this trend?
Perhaps the first thing to say about this latest documentary is that its subjects are fundamentally different from any of Theroux’s others. As already noted, Theroux has built his career on being able to engage with society’s fringe, and whilst alcoholics are in many ways similarly seen as fringe, they are in many ways seen as far more relatable, visible and knowable (if not literally, then certainly culturally) than any other group Theroux has explored. We are far more likely to know an alcoholic for example, whereas how many of us can say that we know a survivalist or a member of Westboro’ Baptist Church?! We are also far more likely to ‘know’ about alcoholism in as far as we know (even if on a basic and/or flawed level) what it is. In comparison, I might have heard of the survivalists or Westboro’ Baptist Church but not much more than that – who they are, what they believe or how they behave for example.
Further, the way Theroux relates to those he meets in ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ is patently different to how he has done so in the past. Here, he seems to wear his emotions much more openly, he is visibly saddened and stirred by the way in which alcohol has gripped and destroyed the lives of a number (if not all, thankfully) of those he meets. Accordingly, he comes across as much more attached than in the past, it is clear that he dearly wants to help those he meet escape alcohol’s clutches. This is no more apparent than when Joe, in the depths of an alcohol induced crisis decides (whilst at hospital) that he wants to go out and buy a bottle of vodka, to which Louis responds by imploring him not to. It isn’t merely the words he says to Joe, but the way in which he almost begs Joe not to that sticks in the memory.
All of which leads the viewer to respond to ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ in a wholly different way than to previous Theroux offerings. In the past, we might have been entertained by Theroux’s dalliances with people to whom many feel deserve our mockery, derision and laughter. This certainly isn’t the case here. Rather, Drinking to Oblivion is an often uncomfortable, hard-hitting and altogether sad watch. Indeed, we aren’t encouraged to be entertained, intrigued, and to mock, deride and laugh but to lament, be saddened, discomforted and moved by how this terrifying affliction can affect significant numbers of people. Thus, given the subject matter, Theroux’s change in tone is welcome (I say this as someone who has enjoyed much of Theroux’s earlier work).
In summary, drinking to Oblivion is indeed hard, discomforting and saddening, and it is all the better for it.