Last Night's TV – Louis and the Pariahs

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Posted on: 04 April 2011 by Alexander Hay

Louis Theroux finds America's Most Hated Family at bay

The Westboro Baptist Church is slowly dying. This rather weird organisation with a mad, abusive, preposterous brute of an owner at the top and brainwashed underlings beneath him, has no long term future - 'members' are leaving all the time. Yet it does however serve one useful purpose. It serves to remind us that Americans can be really silly at times.

How else to explain why they defend the right of the church to its free speech without realising how it is being bent and twisted into a means of abuse? Or how their litigation-crazy legal system lets the church sue its way to wealth? Fittingly, it takes someone who's not American to point this out.

In fact, Louis Theroux has been there before. His previous documentary, 2006's "The Most Hated Family in America" pretty much summed the bunch up. The odd thing about the affair was that Louis was in an odd sort of way befriended by the family, for all their claims he was going to burn in hell.

He actually just wanted to talk to them, and this revealed a blind spot. They seemed genuinely lonely and the tall bespectacled one became an ironic sort of confessor for those who claim to be without sin but who had driven the rest of humanity away with their hate.

So, a few years later and Louis is back for more in last night's sequel, "America's Most Hated Family in Crisis" (BBC 2). The church remains ever hateful, but cracks are beginning to show - some of the younger members are leaving, while the apocalyptic rhetoric is reaching a crescendo. Meanwhile, the fake bravado of their pickets at military funerals, Muslim funerals and anywhere else they're somehow allowed to make trouble is growing ever more strident. They're nearing critical mass.

But while they literally damn those newly ejected members, the documentary cleverly exposes how weak these defections have made them. The non-stop chaperoning of young female members is telling, as is the desperate drilling of Phelps dogma into the children and teenagers of the church.

It's a rearguard action the church is destined to lose. There isn't anyone silly enough to marry into the church, give or take a strange young wannabe, meaning those caged little cherubs are probably Fred's last generation of worshippers.

The documentary also reveals the church to be essentially parasitic in nature. For all the Phelpses do to disparage America, they are utterly dependent on it. Some of the 'congregation' also work as state employees.  They need the First Amendment and US law to hide behind. They need police protection from the government they condemn as satanic. They need the World Wide Web to put out their rather crazed anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-everything propaganda. 

And they also plagiarise and leech off popular culture, rewriting Lady Gaga songs and dance numbers into yet more 'you're going to BURN!' screeds. One son of Phelps even works in the local prison and other members of the family are nurses. Or as Louis puts it, 'aren't you having your cake and eating it?' to several church members who stumble over their own rhetoric as they try to defend being online friends with, of all things, a Dutch filmcrew.

Yet it's the human moments in the midst of the inhumanity that are most telling. When they're on their own, the church members start to crack a little and some of the pain and loss they've experienced starts to come through. Louis is both dauntless and implacable in the pursuit of these weaknesses in their armour, in a rather polite, diffident way of course.

Yet it's telling that members left after the last time Louis visited, and will doubtless be joined by others. And yet they still let him and his camera crew in again. It would be poetic justice if moderate, atheist Theroux became the fanatical, god-bothering Phelpses' angel of mercy, and perhaps they accept this on a certain level.

Yet most telling of all is the scene where Louis tries to corner Fred Phelps for an interview. The church elder legs it rather quickly. It's almost as if Phelps is scared of being held to account - strange from a man who claims such righteousness, and such blessings from an angry, vengeful God. It's like he knows the game is finally up.

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Alexander Hay

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