The series will be looking at birth, love and death in various forms. One episode, ‘Take My Baby’, focuses on open adoption - that is, adoption where a baby’s mother willingly hands over a newborn to another family, often for economic reasons. Another (’Love Without Limits’) looks at polyamory (or “consensual non-monogamy”), while the third, ‘Choosing Death’, looks at people with terminal illnesses opting to be prescribed life-ending medication. “We noticed that all of these, in different ways, were attempts to deal with age-old situations in a new way,” says Theroux.
The series came about quite organically, Theroux told the BBC. “As a production team, we always tend to look at knotty issues, issues where there is angst, where there is high emotion, where there are wrenching decisions to be made. And within that we became interested in the almost utopian ways in which, in America, they attempt to do things a bit differently. Full disclosure - the series was incubated over a few months and slightly on the fly - we didn’t sit down and think, ‘Let’s do a three-parter called Altered States’. It kind of evolved.”
Despite Theroux having a huge cult following that finds him endlessly interesting, he says some of his programmes are almost entirely born out of a fear of having to entertain.
“If anything, it’s in a spirit of self-doubt and anxiety that I tend to take on difficult subjects,” he explain to the BBC. “In other words, my biggest fear as a programme maker is the idea of either being boring, or presuming on the goodwill of the audience that they’ll want to see whatever I do. That runs completely counter to how I see myself, which is as a journalist and a curious person, but not as an entertainer who is interesting in his own right.”
While the polyamory one is bound to provide some of Theroux’s trademark never-more-British awkwardness, it’s the assisted dying episode that sounds like it’ll really stick with people.
Theroux spoke movingly about it on the Adam Buxton Podcast this week, revealing that the crew accompany a terminally ill man who has decided to end his life on his terms rather then die of his disease.
“Viewer discretion is advised,” he said. “If you have six months or less to live and feel like you don’t want to drag it out, you can take a cocktail of drugs and end your own life. We filmed a guy who does that.” Asked if they filmed him at the point of death, Theroux replies, “Ah, yes.” As well as people prescribed these cocktails, they also followed a group who assist people who aren’t terminal, thus don’t come under that law, but are in such a lot of pain that they want to end their lives.
Sound interesting? Damn straight. Will everyone watching it burst into tears? You betcha!
Louis Theroux: Altered States begins on Sunday November 4th at 9pm on BBC Two.