Louis Theroux: Dark States – Heroin Town review: bleak as hell

The documentary-maker is back with a tale of America’s worst ever drug epidemic and its forgotten victims. Plus: it’s party time in John Singleton’s new LA drama Snowfall

A man named Nate has been telling Louis Theroux about his heroin addiction in the tent he lives in by the river in Huntington, West Virginia. Nate feels comfortable with his addiction, he says, and has never felt the need to go to rehab.

The conversation turns to Nate’s 12-year-old son, who he never sees – because of the drugs. He would have liked to have been there for his son, he says. He loves him, and he has missed out on so much of his life … And talking about it seems to sow a seed of doubt in Nate’s mind, about heroin being such a brilliant idea. “You’re killing me, bro,” he tells Louis, and then he deals with it, by shooting up, into a scab in his arm. And then it’s all OK again. He describes what it’s like: “It’s kind of like a stick of dynamite that’s going to do absolutely nothing in the world except make you feel as good as you can possibly feel.”

Nate is just one of the tragic characters in Louis Theroux: Dark States – Heroin Town (BBC2, Sunday). There’s Petty Betty and Mickey and Alisha, and Katillia. Oh God, lovely Katillia whose boyfriend at first seems to be taking care of her, but it soon emerges that their relationship is exploitative and abusive.

Somehow, they all open up to the Englishman with the awkward demeanour. It’s as if he knows where the invisible string in their backs is, which he pulls to make them talk. Or perhaps it’s just that look he has: tell me about it. And they do; they might lie to their families, and to themselves, but to Louis they tell it like it is.

There are a couple of moments of almost-humour. Does Louis address Petty Betty as Petty or Betty, or something else? And it’s quite funny when he asks Mickey, all politely and posh-Englishly, as if he’s asking him if he’d like a cup of tea: “Have you sucked a dick to get high?” But then, when you think about what he’s asking, it’s not actually so funny.

Mostly, it’s bleak as hell. And it’s not just a bunch of junkies opening up their sad lives. It’s about how this happened – through prescription painkillers, and how the US’s love affair with them led to its worst ever drug epidemic. And it’s a portrait of a town, a once thriving industrial one, now dying and forgotten. The statistics speak for themselves: one in four adults dependent on opiates, the rate of fatal overdoses 13 times the national average, one in 10 babies born dependent…

Including little Archie, Alisha’s son, who is kept in hospital for 10 days while he is weaned off methadone. That’s not the right kind of start, is it? But now he seems to be doing OK. Louis holds him, and smiles for the first time in the show. Then his mother takes him, gives him a bottle, and he opens his eyes. I needed that. Thank heaven for Archie, a tiny gap in the heroin gloom.

The drug-taking in Snowfall (BBC2, Sunday) looks better; more fun, certainly. We’re in a fabulous house overlooking Los Angeles, the Rolling Stones are blasting out, people are in the pool, one lady seems to be doing to this chap what Mickey in Huntington never did to get high. Then another woman approaches him from behind and – oh my word – blows top-quality cocaine up his bum with a straw. Yeah, I go to parties like that all the time…

Oh, the man, who turns out to be a CIA officer who was also running a secret drug ring to fund contras in Central America, is now foaming at the mouth – next, he’s sadly dead. Still, there are worse ways to go.

It’s 1983 and Hurricane Charlie, a category-five cocaine storm, is buffeting California. In South Central LA, nice kid and small-time weed dealer Franklin (south London’s Damson Idris) is getting sucked in. As is a Hispanic pro wrestler called El Oso, although not entirely willingly; pulling his strings is a badass cartel jefe named Lucia. While over in a nicer part of town, a hilarious Israeli gangster with small trunks and a gold gun is starting to shift a lot of coke. And a new CIA operative, Teddy, has taken over.

The storylines haven’t yet been twisted into one strong leash that is dragging me along, and it remains to be seen whether that will happen. Snowfall, created by Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton, is certainly not The Wire with palm trees: it’s more superficial, less deeply immersive. But 80s LA is lovingly recreated, it’s sunny, the soundtrack is nice. Hey, let’s party. Bring your own straw…


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Louis Theroux: Drinking to Oblivion review – you’ll worry about your alcohol consumption
The docu-king is back in Britain with a brilliant, brutal look at addiction. Plus: the genius of Yehudi Menuhin, the 20th century’s greatest violinist

Sam Wollaston

25, Apr, 2016 @6:20 AM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family review – a deeply uncomfortable watch
This follow-up film about the supremely intolerant Westboro Baptist church finds plenty to be outraged by, but it also veers into exploitation

Lucy Mangan

14, Jul, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Selling Sex review – employment, empowerment or exploitation?
With the sex economy booming, Theroux sensitively shadowed three women at its coalface – from a hard-up student to a woman married for 44 years

Lucy Mangan

12, Jan, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge review – 25 years of oddball odysseys
This new four-part series sees the documentary maker revisit the highlights of his long and varied career, from cornering hucksters to run-ins with neo-Nazis

Lucy Mangan

06, Sep, 2020 @9:00 PM

Article image
TV tonight: Joe Exotic gets the full Louis Theroux treatment
A year after Tiger King, the documentarian charts the rise and fall of the animal keeper. Plus: Wellington Paranormal. Here’s what to watch this evening

Ammar Kalia, Ellen E Jones, Hannah J Davies, Jack Seale and Paul Howlett

05, Apr, 2021 @5:20 AM

Article image
Louis Theroux – The City Addicted to Crystal Meth | Grizzly Bear Face-Off: Austin Stevens' Adventures | Engineering Britain's Superweapons | Girls Aloud: Out of Control | TV Review

For Louis Theroux, life is just one big awkward moment. And thank goodness for that, says Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

09, Aug, 2009 @11:05 PM

Article image
Altered States: Love Without Limits review – Louis Theroux treads his tightrope
With his patented tone of careful interest, Theroux unpicked the world of polyamory, or people openly sleeping with other people while their partners keep determinedly smiling

Lucy Mangan

04, Nov, 2018 @10:00 PM

Article image
Thunderbirds Are Go and Louis Theroux: Transgender Kids - TV review
As a young boy I loved the Tracy brothers and this update is pretty FAB too

Stuart Jeffries

06, Apr, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
Louis Theroux: Savile review – from awkward to seriously uncomfortable … and extraordinary
Theroux sets out to explain how he, and everyone else, failed to uncover Savile’s rape and child abuse in a brave, bold and honest film

Sam Wollaston

02, Oct, 2016 @9:15 PM

Article image
The South Bank Show 40th Anniversary review: a punchy celebration of the agenda-setting arts show
Panorama lets four of Donald Trump’s supporters speak about why they voted for him and how he is doing in power. It’s a useful, but frustrating, exercise

Rebecca Nicholson

15, Jan, 2018 @9:00 PM