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Review: Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge

Written by Culture, TV, TV Reviews

Louis Theroux has always looked for the weird and wonderful in his documentaries. But with the coronavirus lockdown making it a lot harder for him to film his subjects, the boy from the BBC with the, quite frankly, fabulous lockdown beard, has turned to the alternative; a compilation series.

So it might not be what we expected from a new Theroux series. But to be fair to Louis, he has – well, he’s lived life on the edge, funnily enough. I think it’s only fair we let him chill out in his (very nice) house for a bit and dig through the archives. Starting right at the beginning with episodes of his Weird Weekends series, we revisit alien encounters, UFOs (one of my personal favourite episodes) and survivalists living in Idaho, led by a man whom the notorious Rambo character is said to be based off of.

So, y’know, just some light entertainment.

Theroux is just as awkward and wonderful on the computer camera, as in front of the camera crew

Louis gets back in contact with Mike Cain, a survivalist he met whilst filming the episode. In the mid-90s when the two met, Cain had armed himself and his family against what he saw as an inevitable war with the federal government. When he Skypes Louis (can the BBC budget not afford Zoom now?!), he’s a changed man…partially. Not regretting the time he spent in Idaho, Cain admits that the survivalists were cowards, hiding up in the hills. He’s even found his new leader in (you guessed it), Trump. Theroux, meanwhile is just as awkward and wonderful on the computer camera, as in front of the camera crew. It’s an oddly wholesome moment, seeing two people reconnect after years apart and despite all their differences.

Reverend Robert Short communicating with an alien
Credit: Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge, BBC iPlayer

And this is one of my favourite things about each documentary he makes; the humanity. These people have wildly opposing views to him, and many of us watching; Louis and the Nazis, (a documentary he also revisits in this episode of Life on the Edge) shocked me beyond belief the first time I saw it. And whilst I will challenge anyone not to even snigger at a grown man ‘communicating’ with the leader of an alien species in the UFO episode, the news that this man has recently passed away, is unavoidably sad.

Whilst Louis was never easily convinced in the existence of aliens (or many of the other things he encountered), he is always respectful. Always in the knowledge that, at the end of the day, we’re all human beings. He’s never there to cause tension, trouble or drama – so the death of a man he spent time with, trying to understand and find common ground with, does give the first episode of Life on the Edge a more sombre tone.

Life on the Edge is a somewhat comforting show, if not slightly odd

He’s also aware of the room for growth and change with the people he encounters. After three documentaries on Westboro Baptist Church, having seen members come and go, he probably knows this better than most documentary filmmakers and journalists. In 2003’s Louis and the Nazis he met Lamb and Lynx, who (at around ten years old) made up the white nationalist pop group “Prussian Blue”, orchestrated by their mother. When Louis speaks with them again in this episode, they’re completely different people. Apologising for their past actions and announcing themselves as “liberals”, they hope their story could encourage others to change their beliefs. It’s a contrast to Cain’s journey, but the very fact their progress has been highlighted shows the importance of letting people grow.

Lynx and Lamb in Louis and the Nazis
Credit: Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge, BBC iPlayer

Well, everyone except Marshall Sylver – a “self-improvement” guru claiming to be able to help his ‘students’ becoming millionaires, who despite being fined and sued for thousands, is still working today. I’m very much Theroux with him.

Life on the Edge is a somewhat comforting show, if not slightly odd. It’s seeing the man who has been all over the world, encountered all sorts of weird and wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) things, just potter around his house with his family and occasionally look to camera and say ‘hey remember when I met those survivalists? Let me tell you about that.’ And if you’ve seen the fair majority of his back catalogue (yes, I’m calling myself out), it’s like catching up with an old friend.

And Louis- I’ve missed you.

Credit: BBC, YouTube

Last modified: 11th September 2020

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