A third Louis Theroux trip to hang out with the hateful Westboro Baptist Church is a road to nowhere
Louis Theroux is one of the most beguiling TV documentarians of our times. His potent mix of entertaining, goofy and insightful has led him to getting behind the cult of celebrity, penetrating secret societies and exposing bigoted groups and individuals while attempting to find their human side.
This was one of the outcomes he reached for with his initial film about the Westboro Baptist Church in 2007 after the group had spent a decade spreading hate, espousing rank homophobia (their most notorious slogan 'God Hates Fags' pretty much summed up the barbarity of their 'faith') and picketing the funerals of US soldiers who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The church's fire and brimstone figurehead Fred Phelps was an integral part of the first two documentaries: Theroux returned in 2012 to look at a movement in crisis when previously passionate members had swiftly departed. Phelps' death in 2014 was accompanied by rumours that the leader had been excommunicated after holding out the hand of friendship to a nearby gay community: whether this was part of some belated remorse for his views or a sign of dementia is not probed too far by Theroux in this further sequel.
The timing of the new documentary comes at a moment in American history when views that would previously have been mainly expressed behind closed doors or in public only by the most outspoken of extremists, are now sadly dominant in the mainstream. The legitimisation of hatred by the White House's current occupant has split open a Pandora's Box of fear and loathing, all of which means that the Westboro crew (which now numbers around 70 members) have had their entire raison d'être gazumped along the corridors of power. Now instead of causing outrage by waving inhumane placards outside the funerals of murdered gay men, they're merely attracting a mocking pity by quoting from scripture to condemn basketball.
The overriding feeling of watching this third part is of a moment that has come and gone, a sadness which Theroux notes in longstanding member Shirley Phelps (Fred's daughter) who has now cut herself off from the children who finally saw sense and fled the group. One of them, Megan, has delivered a Ted Talk and is publishing a book this year about her time within and without Westboro. But even she seems wiped out by an upbringing filled with virulent negativity dressed up as a belief system.
But it also leaves Theroux without a real thrust to his film. Perhaps he needed a sense of closure with the people he previously met and tried to find some human connection with, but as a documentary it's as lightweight as the original film was vital in exposing shocking hatred that has sadly become par for the course in American life.
Louis Theroux: Surviving America's Most Hated Family is on BBC Two, Sun 14 Jul, 9pm.