Friday, November 03, 2017

State of the nation

You only have to look at the president to see how troubled the US is, but Louis Theroux's latest documentary series Dark States underlined that fact. The three programmes examined the underbelly of the American dream: the heroin epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia; sex trafficking in Houston, Texas; and homicide in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The series was consistent in exploring the issues from a variety of different perspectives to illustrate their complexity and avoiding suggesting that there are any easy solutions. The spike in heroin use nationwide, for instance, was traced back to a clampdown on the prescription of opioids by doctors - a welcome move, to be sure, but one that has had unintended consequences. As this BBC article indicates, there is no single reason for the country's opioid problem, so alleviating it is no simple matter.

Similarly, Theroux made clear that in the case of sex trafficking, the waters are muddied by some women actively choosing sex work and others exhibiting Stockholm syndrome-like love or at least respect for their pimps. In the final episode, he highlighted the petty incidents that spark much violence as well as some of its causes (unemployment, poor education, poverty, a loss of values and respect for life, absent fathers) - but he also illustrated the police's heavy-handedness and suspicion of people purely on account of their skin colour, and the vicious cycle by which increasing levels of violent crime induce people to arm themselves in self-defence.

All of which was for the most part deeply depressing, but Theroux always managed to find a tiny speck of hope to which to cling at the end of each episode. That was to his credit, as was his ability to remain reasonable even when faced by particularly odious interviewees, such as the imprisoned pimp insisting that "some women are just hos". He didn't ask questions to challenge or provoke so much as to invite people to talk - and, given that his subjects are rarely afforded a voice, they generally seized the opportunity to be heard. His skill was then allowing them the time and space to talk.

Dark States was too frequently difficult to watch to be called enjoyable - but it was certainly eye-opening viewing.

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