Enough playing dumb

Am I the only one who's getting tired of Theroux's old routine?

Louis Theroux: Behind Bars BBC2

Not to be mean, but what is the point of Louis Theroux? What exactly does he bring to the coolfest that is documentary in 2008? Increasingly little, if you ask me. Journalists often make the mistake of referring to him in print as a documentary-maker, but this is inaccurate. The ideas are his, and he writes and presents the films, but they are produced and directed by others (his latest is directed by Stuart Cabb).

In theory, anyone could do his job: ask a few impertinent questions, rifle through - metaphorically speaking - a few knicker drawers. Only they couldn't, could they? Theroux's big selling point is his manner: courteous and clever, faux-innocent if you're a fan, sly and disingenuous if you're not.

In the old days, I was a fan. His portraits of twilight celebrities such as Keith Harris and Paul Daniels were beady and insightful, even if his subjects were easy targets. But does he hope to go on looking mildly bewildered in the face of weirdness for ever? Does he seriously think that his audience will never tire of this routine?

Obviously not, if the evidence of Louis Theroux: Behind Bars (13 January, 9.10pm) is anything to go by. During the making of this film, Theroux spent two weeks inside San Quentin State Prison, one of the oldest jails in America, and home to 3,000 murderers, sexual predators, gang members and small-time criminals. It's grim, overcrowded, hopeless: a vision of hell, like Bosch with boiler suits.

As the film opened (cue doomy clanging of gates), I wondered if he would be tempted to alter his chummy tone even slightly in the face of such desperation. I also wondered if he would tackle big ideas - you know, such as remorse and rehabilitation - or whether, as per usual, he'd simply seek out the craziest freaks he could find and let them babble on while he pushed his spectacles meaningfully up his nose.

But Theroux treated this gig pretty much like any other. Inspecting the cell of an especially scary prisoner called Playboy Nolan, his first question was not how it felt to be locked up for 23 hours a day in such a small space, but: "Why so many noodles?" (Nolan had several packets to hand.) Later, at breakfast with a couple of white supremacists, he informed us chirpily that he was "looking forward" to his "first taste of prison food". The camera then panned, not very wittily, to his plastic tray, laden with grey mush.

I would have been fine with this approach if, after some initial fooling around, he had tried to develop a serious narrative. But he went on like this for the whole hour, hopping from cell to cage to canteen and back again: a little nervous, a little impressed at his own bravery, perhaps, but mostly smug at what he told us was his sense that the inmates were in some way "grateful" to him for listening to them (anything to alleviate the boredom, more like).

There was a mad-eyed prisoner who had found Jesus and expelled the "demons" from his life; a gay prisoner who wore mascara in the hope that bullies would consider him a girl and leave him alone, and who was "dating" a straight former Nazi (Louis was disturbingly keen to know if they had bunked up yet); and a coquettish transgender prisoner, Deborah, who was sharing a cell with her boyfriend, Robert.

It was all very interesting, in its own gruesome, voyeuristic way, but I would have liked to know - just off the top of my head - whether any of these prisoners was on medication; what counselling, if any, was available to them; and if they had any visitors from the outside world.

Theroux, however, substituted platitudes for context: "As much as the prison walls keep others out, they also force those on the inside together," he announced sombrely. No shit, Louis.

When I interviewed Theroux last year, my hunch was that he had backed himself into a corner, stylistically speaking. Now I think it's worse than that. Great material comes his way but he (and his director) just don't seem to be deft enough to handle it. That's when disingenuous starts to look plain dumb.

Pick of the week

Messiah V
20 and 21 January, 9pm, BBC1
Marc Warren is now the serial-killer-hunting cop. Gruesome.

True Stories: No End in Sight
22 January, 10pm, More4
How the US ignored advice on how to keep the peace in Iraq.

Wonderland
23 January, 9.50pm, BBC2
Documentary about four strange inhabitants of Bodmin Moor.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism