A new Louis Theroux film about polyamory airs on Sunday, and fans of the documentary king are in for a treat. (For a little taster of what's in store: one scene sees him blindfolded, semi-naked and being fed cheese by a topless woman at a "sensual eating workshop", which is just crying out to receive the No Context Louis treatment.)
In Love Without Limits, the much-loved journalist and documentary maker delves into the lively, often agonising world of "ethical non-monogamy". He travels to the US polyamory capital, Portland, Oregon, known for its motto "Keep Portland Weird", to immerse himself in the movement and meet families in various polyamorous arrangements. What he finds is a mixed bag: some take to it like ducks to water, while others are left consumed by jealousy, upset and brokenhearted.
As it’s easy to find holes in polyamory, I do completely understand why it works for some people
With nearly half of marriages in the US now ending in divorce, 2018 is the perfect time to investigate the relationship pioneers rewriting the rules of traditional monogamy and family life. With everyone from young Silicon Valley millennials to a British middle-aged, middle-class couple in the BBC drama Wanderlust apparently giving it a go, it was only a matter of time before the subject received the Theroux treatment.
At a recent preview of the film, Theroux said he believes that in 90% of polyamorous relationships there’s "one person who’s not getting as much out of it" as others, but that he also came to realise the downsides of monogamy while making the film. "Marriage evolved at a time when we didn’t live that long, so as much as it’s easy to find holes in polyamory, I do completely understand why it works for some people.
"In a nutshell you’re choosing between jealousy and boredom – do you want to live a life in which you’re dealing with really awkward and difficult jealousies and a sense of insecurity but having quite a fun and exciting time, or go into a semi-narcotised boredom where you feel a lot safer?"
Theroux’s wife Nancy Strang, with whom he has three children, was apparently totally fine with him stripping off in front of – and being touched by – a group of naked strangers during shooting. "She’s a very understanding and cool person. She’s not the kind of person to be insecure or get in a flap about something like that – [afterwards] she probably just said something like, 'Fine, whatever, by the way you still haven’t taken out the rubbish,' or some random thing that I’d failed to do."
Love Without Limits is the first in a new three-part series, Altered States, which sees him tackle the universal themes of birth, death and relationships. In Take My Baby he investigates adoption, while in Choosing Death he explores euthanasia, both in California. Most adoptions in the state are carried out privately as part of a multimillion dollar industry, and pregnant women can receive up to $50,000 for giving up their newborn to adoptive parents, while agencies, facilitators and lawyers can earn thousands of dollars per baby.
Naturally, while making the films he came to reflect on his own marriage and mortality, he told the audience at the recent event. "The death one really gives you perspective on the important things," he said, adding that he was struck by the fullness of the lives his subjects were about to leave behind.
In what makes for sensitive viewing, Theroux meets birth mothers preparing to hand over their babies, some of whom have histories of poverty, addiction and abuse, which can push women down the adoption path. He also meets prospective parents, who are often left unsure as to whether the birth mother will actually give her child away once it's born.
California is also one of the six US states that now offer the terminally ill the option of ending their life with a prescribed cocktail of drugs, and in Choosing Death, Theroux uncovers some of the moral dilemmas involved when you have complete autonomy over your own death.
These stories all "have something a touch utopian about them, involving a kind of idealism and forward thinking that brings new opportunities but also new risks," Theroux said in a statement. This year's miniseries follows on from last year's Dark States, in which Theroux investigated three "uniquely devastating challenges" facing the US: murder, sex trafficking, and opiate dependency.
Theroux has delved into such a vast array of subjects by this point in his career that he takes unusual, unexpected situations – of which there are many in Altered States – in his stride. "I just try and be a decent person," he said at the preview screening. "Having glasses and being a bit of a geek probably doesn’t hurt. I’m naturally quite a tentative and insecure person and paradoxically sometimes that has its advantages. I think people can see me maybe as someone who actually isn’t going to be a bully and who is basically trying very hard to read signals that are coming back and not be a dick."
It’s this awkwardness and willingness to take things at face value that has left him with legions of young fans and an almost cult-like following. He’s regularly the subject of memes and GIFs, has been emblazoned on T-shirts, had club nights dedicated to him and even inspired tattoos, and Refinery29 wanted to hear Theroux’s take on it. Does this not creep him out at all?
They dance around in masks of me – of Louis Theroux – because it isn’t really me, it’s the TV guy
"I think it’s really good," he said. "Twenty years ago when I made the first series of Weird Weekends, I’m embarrassed to say that I dreamed it would be around for years and years... I was very young and ambitious and maybe... I felt in some ways angry and thwarted and that my voice wasn’t being heard. Like many people in their early 20s I was full of my own dreams and I went into Weird Weekends thinking, 'This is going to be a legendary TV show and I’ll commit everything to it and to making it special and different'."
Theroux also had "a sense of insecurity and that [he] needed to over deliver" because he thought he "wasn’t naturally talented enough" or "someone who should naturally be on TV", he continued. Luckily, that crisis of confidence didn't last long.
"So the idea that people are still watching it and that younger people are discovering it and finding things to enjoy in it is very satisfying. I dreamed that would happen and it did happen. Some of the memes I don’t really get, and the Louis Theroux themed nights. It’s obviously become its own thing. On one level I don’t totally understand it but maybe that’s partly the point. They dance around in masks of me – of Louis Theroux – because it isn’t really me, it’s the TV guy."
'Love Without Limits' airs on BBC Two at 9pm on Sunday 4th November. 'Choosing Death' airs on BBC Two at 9pm on Sunday 18th November. 'Take My Baby' airs on BBC Two at 9pm on Sunday 25th November.