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Odd Man In

Correspondent of the kooky, Louis Theroux

Charles Dickens didn't much like Americans. "I am quite serious when I say that I do not believe there are, on the whole earth...so many intensified bores as in these United States," he concluded after the famous 1842 tour that he chronicled in American Notes. "No man can form an adequate idea of the word before coming here." We're innocents abroad, too: "Cruel mockery of tourists--often American--is an important conventional element of the British travel book," notes literary critic Paul Fussell in his survey of the genre's between-the-wars heights.

Yet despite a centuries-long heritage of ridicule, Americans have continued to roll over and offer up their bellies to whatever accented visitor happens by, hoping against hope that this time we'll get our tummies rubbed. And, of course, the slap comes instead: From Dickens and Mrs. Trollope in the 19th Century to Simone de Beauvoir and Andrei Codrescu in our own, Europeans shrink again and again from American vulgarity, commercialism, and stupidity, sneering into their handkerchiefs at the unwarranted self-assurance of such garrulous, simpleminded rubes. (Perhaps the last European to see anything hopeful in these environs was Alexis de Tocqueville--160 years back.)

Given that cultural schooling, as well as his own scoffing bloodlines--dad Paul has hated pretty much every continent he's had the misfortune to visit--Louis Theroux might seem genetically engineered to sneer. (Not to mention his previous work on Michael Moore's TV Nation, which tutored its viewers in class snobbery cloaked as lefty truth-telling.) But to this fellow's credit, his new series, Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends (premiering at 7:00 p.m., October 1 on Bravo: Channel 27 in Minneapolis; 48 in St. Paul), rises above these tides much more often than it sinks into the muck of scorn.

An amiably shaggy goof too angular and unpretentious to be called "tweedy"--his brainy shamble suggests a kind of Cool Britannia hipsterism--the perpetually apologetic Theroux gives everyone a chance to be heard. With ingenuousness as his central principle, along with a can-you-believe-this? credulity that accepts pretty much anything, he shifts handily from Oxbridge ironist to Hugh Grant Brit-twit. The result is an almost uniformly good-natured, and thus sneakily profound, tour through the weirder precincts of the American dream.

On the premier episode, Louis travels to the Southeast to visit a glitzy World Championship Wrestling promotion (best boast: "You should have caught my act when I was 29. I would have made love to you," says Rowdy Roddy Piper). At the event, Theroux succeeds in insulting legendary trainer Sarge by idly wondering how the winner of a match is predetermined. Sarge, who looks as close to a human version of the comic-book character The Thing as I ever hope to see, takes this inquiry rather the wrong way and later wreaks vengeance by literally dragging poor Louis into the ring at wrestling camp by the scruff of his neck to do pushups, neck-bridges, and wind sprints until he vomits. (Sarge on vomiting: "That ain't nothing.")

Despite this rebuff, Theroux gains a peek into wrestling dramaturgy, watching novices learn to give interviews that produce the proper "heat" from fans. One hapless fellow delivers his match date, "April 24," and location, "Georgia Dome," with sufficient frequency but runs out of threats 30 seconds before his time is up. Theroux, asked to do his bit, genteelly menaces his opponent: "Is he going down? I hope so. Pistol Pez Whatley, the legend, with the utmost respect, I'm afraid to tell you that I think you're going down."

But the real key to the show comes when Louis heads to wrestling's minor leagues, helping the scruffy and blood-drenched AIWF, which is run out of the back of a moving van, to pitch its tent in every small town that will have it. Main man Dean, a paunchy entrepreneur in a Pantera T-shirt, and sidekick Brian happily explain how they arrange the matches' outcomes. And tag champ Jody, a homemade Stone Cold Steve Austin who also manages the local service station, taps Louis on the back with a shelf for demonstration purposes, then gleefully bangs himself on the head with it.

The setup seems tailor-made for mockery, but Louis seems to genuinely like these guys: He returns to their trailer after his horrendous experience at the WCW Power Plant, and they commiserate. He also suggests that perhaps a bit less bloodletting might better serve all concerned. Evaluating the AIWF's last promotion, he declares, "At first, I was like, ooh, that's kind of cool...but toward the end I was like, uhh, that's kind of disgusting." Cheerful to the last, Dean and Brian come across as heroic, self-invented Americans, evading the day-to-day with an inner life they've rendered bankable--the Jeffersonian yeoman outfitted in kneepads and a barbed-wire chair.

 

The other Weird Weekends episodes I've seen don't quite muster the same empathy. Anthropological interest can only take you so far: With the parade of freakishness crowding the tube these days, how many subcultures can possibly exist in isolation without their own development deals? Thus the UFO episode addresses its kooky quarry with predictable results (although the "priest" who channels an alien entity in the best Plan 9 mode is a hoot). Similarly, when visiting the San Fernando Valley, the porn industry's Hollywood, Theroux never fully overcomes his condescension. "Can I see your penis? Why not?" he interrogates one piece of talent, point-blank. Making himself the butt of the joke, he consents to have a nude shot taken (the Polaroid is flashed at us but never directly revealed) and visits zanies like gonzo director Rob Black, who discomfits Theroux by urging him to star in his next film ("basically, the theme of the movie is about rape"). Black goes on to offer career counseling when Theroux turns it down: Given the chance, Mike Wallace would do it, Black says.

Theroux also wrings some wry comedy from the profession's little ironies. "Gay for pay" actor Troy Halston remarks that he doesn't like to kiss "or suck dick." "But presumably, in gay porn," Theroux needles, "those things crop up from time to time, I imagine." And his talks with the gunsel-like J.J. Michaels--a simple soul who has starred in 13 films in four weeks, including the much-touted Anal Witness 4, and acquired a shelfful of Godzilla movies with his earnings--strike the same poignant note of young-man-lost that Susan Faludi heard when she chronicled the world of male porn stars. (Filmed in part at the gym, the interviews also include several hilariously phallic money shots of various weight stacks.) Poor J.J., advised by Theroux to get out of the business before it kills him, replies with desperate chipperness that he has a death wish and has failed at pretty much everything else.

But suddenly Theroux turns nastily homophobic, baiting Troy with what he does on film, and that blurt of nastiness taints all that has come before. Is Theroux's sweetness just a sophisticate's mask, a posture we're supposed to be "smart" enough to see through?

Irony will kill a show like this, rendering it to Sector 3087-J of the vast wasteland of smirk that dominates prime time. Theroux is at his best when he opens himself fully to his subjects, letting the Deans and Brians dream of glory, rather than putting them in their place as his forebears would counsel. For a literary model of this, imagine Whitman with a handheld camera: "I hear America ranting. Their varied ravings I hear."


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