Not only does he take his audience on insightful journeys around some of the world’s strangest and most underrepresented subcultures, but he does it with a unique line of questioning and an addictive dry wit.
In the UK especially, it’s almost like a cult of personality has formed around Theroux. He’s like a wholesome Charles Manson.
We’re ranking the ten best documentaries he has ever made.
Rap (Weird Weekends)
Tenth place on this list was a hard-fought battle between the Weird Weekends episodes ‘Rap’ and ‘Off-Off Broadway’.
Both of them involve a particularly… unique… musical performance from the man himself, but ‘Rap’ just about wins thanks to these lyrics:
“I wanna see you wiggle, wiggle, for sure. It makes me wanna dribble, dribble, you know.”
Extreme Love: Dementia
On the other end of the spectrum is one of Louis’ more recent endeavours, Extreme Love: Dementia.
The desperately sad documentary follows a few patients with dementia in Arizona as they try to maintain a relationship with their loved ones.
It doesn’t make for uplifting viewing, but the story of Gary and his belief that he was still a dentist in his twenties who doesn’t have a wife (his wife, who he had been married to for many years still visited him regularly) is truly fascinating.
In his When Louis Met… series, Louis spent a while in the company of Jimmy Saville, and asked in passing about rumours of paedophilia.
More than ten years later, Savile was dead, and his decades of horrific abuse had been revealed.
In Savile, Louis looks back at that first documentary, while interviewing many of his victims.
It’s gripping and heartbreaking in equal measure, and you can gather a sense of the guilt Theroux personally feels about not being able to see Savile for what he was all those years ago.
When Louis Met… Anne Widdecombe
In the political landscape of 2020, Anne Widdecombe’s vile far-right views would probably be kept at arm’s length from entertainment television.
However, eight years before her infamous 2010 appearance on Strictly Come Dancing, Louis Theroux had the pleasure agony of spending a few weeks in her company.
Widdicombe’s rules were very clear: Louis mustn’t talk to her mother, film in her bedroom, or ask about her sex life.
Of course, Louis snuck a look into her room as they walked past, pressed her on her lack of romantic relationships, and nabbed a sneaky interview with her (rather charming) mother, much to Widdicombe’s chagrin.
Louis Theroux: Behind Bars
There’s nothing better than a good prison documentary, and this one was BBC Two’s tenth most-watched show of the decade when it was released in 2008.
Even though much of its compelling content didn’t require much effort on Louis’ part, I think his simplistic charm helped the range of prisoners open up more than they would have with just about anyone else.
Swingers (Weird Weekends)
In the words of Mark from Peep Show, “I’m Louis Theroux and his wry smile at the orgy.”
Actually being Louis Theroux as he smiled wryly at the orgy in question is something almost too awkward for most to comprehend.
The Weird Weekends episode ‘Swingers’ sees Louis thrown into the world of partner-swapping swingers and their unique subculture.
Without the usual controversy, evil or downright insanity that comes across in many of Theroux’s documentaries, this one makes for light, often hilarious, viewing.
A Place For Paedophiles
We have to jump to the other end of the spectrum once again, as Louis visits Coalinga Mental Hospital.
The hospital supposedly views paedophilia as a mental illness that can be treated, but it’s hard to tell whether its patients are being rehabilitated or simply biding their time until they can be released from what is, effectively, prison.
After all, one particular patient (who claims to no longer have thoughts about children) is allowed to keep a disturbing painting of young ballet performers on his wall.
When Louis Met… Chris Eubank
During his time in Chris Eubank’s mansion, Louis’ expression of sheer bewilderment doesn’t disappear.
Eubank is a bizarre figure at the best of times, but his insistent desire to remain in character really has you questioning whether he’s even human.
Using his impact on ‘the kids’ as the reason to never admit he drinks or swears while also promoting his concerning view that all housework and childcare to be the job of his (now ex) wife is a confusingly flawed mindset.
Louis does attempt to delve beyond Eubank’s visage with limited success, but the rare glimpses into normality are quite something to behold.
Louis And The Nazis
Another of Louis’ investigations into the extremes of racism comes in Louis And The Nazis.
He meets former Klansman Tom Metzger, he is kicked out of a neo-Nazi household for refusing to divulge if he is Jewish, and even spends time amongst Prussian Blue.
Prussian Blue were a folk duo of eight-year-old (at the time) girls, who had been indoctrinated into extreme racism by their mother.
Watching the girls spout such hatred is tough, but if you watch Louis’ 2020 documentary, Life On The Edge, straight after, you can breathe a sigh of relief as he interviews them many years later.
Eventually, the girls were able to re-evaluate what they were doing, and have completely distanced themselves from anything close to their mother’s viewpoint.
The Most Hated Family In America
One of the most recognisable documentaries in Louis Theroux’s long career is his expose on The Most Hated Family In America.
Kansas’ Westboro Baptist Church was (and still is) one of the most evil places in the world, and Louis was able to follow them as they promoted fierce anti-LGBT messages, picketed the funerals of troops and brainwashed their children.
His follow-up films, America’s Most Hated Family In Crisis and Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, allow us a window into the impact of escaping the church on both the ex-members and those who remain.
Seeing such unflinching evil exude from the likes of Shirley Phelps-Roper really does make your blood boil.
My Scientology Movie
Louis’ best work to date has to be his 2015 film, My Scientology Movie.
Not only does it have some of the most intense moments in any documentary I’ve ever seen, but it shines a realistic light on the vile corruption within the Church Of Scientology.
Theroux works with ex-Scientologists (who are frequently harassed and gaslit by current members on camera), while simultaneously setting up a clever recreation of some of David Miscavige’s worst acts as leader of the Church.
It’s phenomenally well-made and presented in a way that doesn’t beat around the bush.
What do you make of this feature?
Which is your favourite Louis Theroux documentary of all time?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.