Louis Theroux has been one of the leading figures in documentary television for two decades now, with his presenting style finding the perfect balance between empathetic and hilariously awkward. Ever since his Weird Weekends days, Theroux’s curiosity and calm demeanor have put subjects at ease, allowing them to be truly open and honest.
To US audiences he’s best known for his 2015 feature film My Scientology Movie, although the presenter has also been responsible for some of the most informative work on television. With specials that range from heartwrenching to full-blown wacky. His previous three-part series, 2017’s Dark States, leaned more towards the former, throwing the spotlight on some of the darkest corners of America. While Altered States, his latest set of docs, manages to seamlessly blend these two sides, resulting in some of Theroux’s finest work.
The first of the three episodes, “Love Without Limits,” sees Theroux exploring the world of polyamory and non-monogamy, traveling to Portland, Oregon, to meet three groups of people in polyamorous relationships. Through a series of conversations, we learn about the lives of these groups, how each of them feels about their situations and what their day to day life is like. And while he’s occasionally taken aback by these scenarios, the nonjudgemental approach Theroux takes to the topic assures that these people aren’t just the butt of a joke.
His willingness to dive headfirst into situations is also on full display here, with one hilarious moment at a party involving a shirtless and blindfolded Theroux being fed cheese harkening back to the zaniness of Weird Weekends. But above all this, his desire to learn and understand is what drives the episode, even if he can seem a little out of his depth at times. We see the fulfillment that can come with polyamory, as demonstrated by a functioning triad relationship, and the occasional jealousy that can emerge. Especially when things are complicated by a pregnancy in one of the groups.
When the episode closes out, however, it’s clear that those feelings don’t have to prevent these relationships from flourishing and can be worked through. It’s only one of these stories that ends on something of a downer, in which the husband of a woman in a polyamorous relationship finds himself in a position that causes him great loneliness. The fact that this is presented more as a flaw in their communication rather than in the nature of polyamorous relationships is refreshing, however.
Following this, Theroux travels to California for “Choosing Death,” a deeply affecting look at assisted suicide. The episode asks the question “How do we prepare for death?” by examining the effects of California’s end of life option act. The legal and ethical issues surrounding assisted suicide are explored here when Theroux meets three people with terminal illnesses, all of whom have decided to die on their own terms. But things aren’t quite so simple, as their unique situations, be it due to their family or lack thereof, complicate the process.
You can see that Theroux is less present in this episode, not from a lack of interest but from a desire to stand back and let these people tell their stories. His first meeting with Debra, who is receiving help from the controversial exit guides, has him witness a demonstration of her apparatus, shown off-camera. The casual nature of all this clearly a surprise to Theroux, and he becomes troubled by Debra’s situation. She has no friends or family, making him more than a little conflicted about her decision to end her own life. Despite this, he approaches their conversations with great respect for her choice, knowing that she’s made up her mind and ensuring that the viewer truly understands her position.
The episode pulls off an extremely difficult balancing act, acknowledging that these people ultimately have to make their own choices while also looking into the ways in which the system can be misused. Theroux similarly struggles with why someone with a loving family would choose to end their own life, prompting some matter of fact discussions about how your own death will impact those you leave behind. Upon witnessing the most intimate and private moments of the family’s lives, however, he seems to finally understand, resulting in some of the finest documentary making you’ll see this year. Which will have you discussing the dilemmas presented here long after the credits stop rolling.
For the final episode, “Take My Baby,” Theroux turns his focus to the uncertain world of open adoption. Despite being a billion dollar industry, there’s surprisingly little accountability to this procedure, wherein hopeful couples are matched with pregnant women who feel they cannot suitably raise their child. The difference between this and traditional adoption, however, is that the birth mothers can still be a part of the child’s life after the adoption process. Leading to a whole lot of complex emotions for everyone involved.
However, much of what is covered here feels just a little underdeveloped. Complicated ideas are hinted at — the connection between a mother and child, how they navigate their feelings when reunited years later — but much of this is glossed over in favor of the bigger picture. There is, to be fair, a lot of ground to cover here, from the birth mothers to the expecting parents, and even the ways in which the system is exploited, making this fertile ground for a documentary. And while a handful of moments do hit hard, there’s a lack of focus holding the episode back.
While you have to appreciate Theroux’s desire to cover all sides of this issue, the hour runtime prevents us from spending too much time in each moment. Either a more narrow focus or an extra thirty minutes would have gone a long way here. One subject, in particular, a pregnant young woman named Jessica, has relatively simple motivations for going through with all this (she just isn’t ready), and the episode struggles to extract more complicated feelings out of the situation.
At its best though, “Take My Baby” contains a powerful reunion that shows the best case scenario for open adoption, and highlights the selflessness that a mother has to have to give her child the best possible life. While another case shows how easily people can be scammed and exploited, and the emotional toll this can have on potential parents. Each of these cases could have used more time to really dig into all the complex feelings at play, but what we do get demonstrates just how good Theroux is at this.
Altered States features some of the finest work of Louis Theroux’s long career, where his ability to draw the honest truth from his subjects shows why he’s considered one of the best. His desire to dig into the changing face of American life and the ways in which systems can be used for good or exploited is always compelling, and he approaches each case with an appropriate curiosity. “Choosing Death” is the highlight here, a tough to watch but vital hour of television, and while the rest of the series doesn’t always reach those heights, it’s still a must-watch for newcomers and longtime fans of Theroux alike.