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…

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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