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Will the real Louis Theroux please stand up?

August 12, 2016

Everyone, take cover! We’re facing an epidemic of “But I couldn’t help wondering if…” documentaries.



Through no fault of his own, Louis Theroux has a lot to answer for. Since his documentaries have become cornerstones of the British view into international social issues, an avalanche of similarly-aged, male journalist-presenters have started copying his style to the letter.

Evidently, they think his way is the best and only means of extracting information from a willing interviewee and engaging a critical audience. In reality, there are as many different journalistic styles as there are people.

The Theroux Technique is to put on an “everyman” persona. Now, if there was a calculus by which we could fit people into the category of “everyman”, no doubt Theroux would fit in it better than Stephen Hawking… But not by that much.

He is an intelligent, knowledgable, engaged, critical, experienced, educated professional. Not to say that he’s a pretender; his everyman face is nothing more forced than basic courtesy and affability, which allows him to talk to his interviewees without coming off strongly as an aloof intellectual.

Even with his valiant efforts, it is all too clear he’s a cut above the average Joe in the brain department. Nevertheless, you can’t fault Theroux for being Theroux: he can’t be anyone else.

His copycats can, though. They can be themselves, and stop pantomiming Theroux by asking lofty yet culturally biased rhetorical questions in voiceover. What drives me mad is that I know they’re doing that in post-production, not on the fly.

They already know the answer to the question – which would be fine as a narrative device, provided the question was about to be answered. But frequently, it isn’t. The very next filmed sequence turns up vague and inconclusive answers, because people are vague and inconclusive.

Yet, that doesn’t stop the presenter from attempting to simplify real people down to cardboard cutouts, the better to come up with A Conclusion within the hour.

The whole feature is peppered with the comment: “But I couldn’t help but wonder if it was having more of an effect on them than they realised… I couldn’t help wondering if it would soon take a toll on them…”

May I make a suggestion? Next time you “can’t help” wondering (aloud), try. Because those aren’t wonders – those are prophesies of doom; the heavily meaningful nods passed between conservative grandparents who Know How It’s Bound To Turn Out.

While presenting the front of a person who is open minded (because after all, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing such socially responsible and challenging work), this style of presenter never misses an opportunity to confirm common prejudices.

And it’s all trite. He infrequently uses his reason to ask himself: “Why should it be this way, and not the other way?” or “Why couldn’t this new system work, given some development?”

This puts Theroux copycats in striking distinction to Theroux himself. The difference is in the brain; fronting as the Theroux everyman does not make a Theroux mind. How he comes across is superficial – it’s what he is that makes him a good journalist.

Theroux can muse on the human condition because he has some idea of how to investigate his queries, and is working through a complex thought process.

He arrives at his conclusions via reason, as opposed to the nebulous sense that one has enough personal experience to be considered an expert in that particular matter.

I get a distinct feeling that the Theroux-copycat presenter expects negative outcomes for his choice in subject matter. Often, his chosen subject matter is sexuality or some equally trivial lifestyle choice, and his manner of examination reeks of judgement.

He’s there to observe, but he hasn’t the remotest interest in seeing; he just wants to be there when it all inevitably goes wrong.

The journalist that isn’t open to learning and ready to be surprised by their findings isn’t doing their job properly. That’s not objectivity. It’s not even observation. The journalist digs and digs for a particular answer, hoping to shape his entire documentary around the answer he expects to find.

Such a person should learn that the old spelling mnemonic: “When you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME” is a social truth particularly relevant to journalists.

Documentaries that are one-sided from the off will miss the best angle when it’s staring them full in the face. In complex human stories, there’s no room for the ego of the presenter, the cult of personality, or any agenda other than the desire to increase public understanding.

Nothing inhibits public understanding like brushing over information in order to give people the benefit of your oh-so-weighty opinion. We’ve got blogs for that.



From → Media Analysis

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