The week in TV: Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America; Severance; The Promise; Gemma Collins: Self-Harm and Me | Television


Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America: Extreme and Online (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Severance Apple TV+
The Promise (BBC Four) | iPlayer
Gemma Collins: Self-Harm and Me Channel 4 | All 4

Should the openly bigoted be given the mainstream platform they crave? That was the ethical stink bomb permeating the opener of BBC Two’s three-part documentary series Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America, the first part of which dealt with the internet-based US far right (the other episodes will focus on rap and pornography). It raised the question: does this really need to be shown?

For sure, the people Theroux meets bask in the negative attention: at times, the parade of needy chancers make reality TV hopefuls look positively Amish. There’s Nick Fuentes, who runs an America First convention, who thinks that white people are bullied, and women shouldn’t vote. And livestreamer Baked Alaska, whose followers spit prejudice in disguised voices. Another streamer, Beardson Beardly, turns up wearing a Louis Theroux T-shirt, his eyes gleaming at his own meta-audacity. Challenged about an alleged Nazi salute, Beardson erupts, and later trashes Theroux on his show, yelling feebly: “You’re a piece of shit and I don’t like you!” Oh Beardson, don’t leave us this way.

A big tell is the misogyny: one of the few women featured explains to Theroux how she was threatened with anal rape. Elsewhere, the documentary crystallises how savvy this relatively new breed consider themselves to be. In a bubbling online swamp of agitators, “incels”, gamers and “irony bros”, it’s a new level of evolved bigotry: the same racism, sexism and homophobia, but delivered with a snicker, a wink, a Get Out Of Hate-Speech Jail Free card. They film Theroux filming them. They talk about “majority white” but coyly deny white nationalism. Solemn avowals are made about “not supporting slavery”, as if it’s a valid option they’ve graciously declined.

The result is a glimpse of the dark underbelly of Online Bigot USA, except of course it’s also happening everywhere else. Theroux drops the faux-naive act he started his career with, emerging as a stronger, more direct documentarian. Far from sanitising unsavoury mindsets, he holds them up to scrutiny, albeit, his rightwing subjects would claim, with a big pair of “pretentious liberal journalist!” tongs. Should such programmes be made? I’d say so: not looking at something doesn’t make it go away.

The new nine-part Apple TV+ offering Severance, set in a near-dystopian future, co-created and co-written by Dan Erickson (The Good Fight; Blue Bloods) and co-directed by Ben Stiller, seems to ask: how much should work own us?

Adam Scott plays Mark, a corporate suit at mysterious data outfit Lumen Industries, a white corridored warren that instils instant Black Mirror-style unease. Mark and his co-workers, including John Turturro and Zach Cherry, have willingly submitted to a controversial implant that divides memories of work and home, meaning they (when they’re “Innies” at the office) remember nothing of home, and (as “Outies”) remember nothing of work when they’re at home. The outside world seems bleak (Mark is widowed), while the Lumen bosses, including Patricia Arquette and Tramell Tillman, are menacingly clinical. As a new Innie, played by Britt Lower, rebels (“Am I livestock?”), a former co-worker warns Mark about Lumen.

Patricia Arquette with Tramell Tillman in Severance.
Patricia Arquette with Tramell Tillman in the glacial Severance. Photograph: Apple TV+

Watching the first two available episodes, I pondered: is Severance an existential cogitation on work-life balance, with a side note on separation of self? I also thought, jeez, guys, I’m not immortal, get on with it. Severance proceeds at the kind of pace at which you might need to stick a hot fork in your thigh to stay alert. In a remarkable cast (Christopher Walken shows up later), Turturro is underemployed, while Arquette gives a performance so dry it leaves dandruff. Nor is it funny, unless mechanically blank passes for black humour. Still, I appreciate the imaginative reach, the attempt at something different. Peeking ahead a few episodes, twists and shocks seem to be – finally – deigning to arrive.

Over on BBC Four, the television gods give us another reason to commit to subtitles with French six-part thriller The Promise. Created by Gaëlle Bellan and former Spiral showrunner Anne Landois, directed by Laure de Butler, it’s an elegantly macabre tale about children going missing over two time zones and has been a big hit in France.

Detective Pierre Castaing (Olivier Marchal) is obsessively convinced that the seedy Serge Fouquet (Guy Lecluyse) is the culprit in a missing-girl case. Twenty years later, Castaing’s daughter, Sarah (Sofia Essaïdi), now also a detective, returns to investigate another child’s disappearance. Could Fouquet be responsible, and why does Sarah’s onetime love (Robinson Stévenin) keep falling under suspicion?

Sofia Essaïdi, centre, in The Promise.
Sofia Essaïdi, centre, in The Promise. Photograph: BBC/Sortilgès Productions

Set in the densely forested Landes region, The Promise takes full metaphorical advantage of the elements, starting with the wild storm ripping though trees and sky as the first small girl disappears. From there, the plot spins out like a sticky cobweb, keeping you speculating until (almost) the end. Heading a sterling cast, Essaïdi is sometimes still, other times as volatile as her character’s father. The Promise becomes not just about the crimes, but also about how deep into the thickets of loyalty you can wander before you realise you have to give up, turn back and follow the breadcrumbs back to reality.

Gemma Collins (AKA “GC”) is a sparky reality diva, formerly of The Only Way Is Essex. In Channel 4 documentary Gemma Collins: Self-Harm and Me, made in conjunction with the mental health charity Mind, she reveals a different side of herself. She started cutting herself at 13, and continued self-harming for 20 years. Her parents discovered her covered in blood, as did her now-fiance. Now Collins wants to have children, and she’s afraid the impulse will return.

Gemma Collins.
‘Commendably reflective’: Gemma Collins. Photograph: Channel 4/PA

Talking to those around her, and visiting the self-harm charity Harmless, Collins seems determined to shed light on this issue, which, according to NHS figures cited in the documentary, affects one in 15 people in their lifetime, and one in six 16- to 24-year-olds. The programme could have committed to a deeper, more analytical dive, but Collins is commendably reflective, saying that even after she stopped cutting, she self-harmed in other ways, such as weight and relationships. And social media? At one point she reads out brutal online reactions to her self-harming (“I heard she cut her arm and gravy came out”). “It don’t bother me,” she snaps, but just for a second, her eyes flash with something sadder than anger.

What else I’m watching

Try Harder!
(BBC Four)
In this absorbing Storyville documentary from Debbie Lum, which originally premiered atlast year’s Sundance film festival, San Francisco students navigate the savage Ivy League college application process, where it’s almost impossible to get a place.

The Tinder Swindler
A suave diamond tycoon is revealed as a devious con artist in this intense feature-length true crime documentary in which his alleged victims join forces to bring him down. (It’s now reported that the real-life swindler intends to parlay his infamy into a Hollywood career.)

Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins in The Professionals.
Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins in The Professionals. Photograph: Cinetext/LWT/Allstar

The Professionals
The first two series of the fabled late-70s/early-80s crime series are up. Bodie and Doyle are the British Starsky and Hutch, but better: sharper styling, more ’tude, tendency to fight villains in crackly faux-leather jackets. Starring Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins (RIP).

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