Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Louis Theroux: America's Medicated Children, BBC Two

Good old Louis, gonzo-bumbler, gauchely uncovering great scoops - like for instance that Max Clifford tells lies, or that Jimmy Saville is a fucking weirdo; Charming Louis, from a famous family: son of Paul Theroux, brother of Marcel Theroux (who I've never heard of), and also apparently brother of Jon Ronson (although that one isn't openly admitted); Posh old Louis, fag to Nick Clegg of all people at Westminster, who apparently lives in Harlesden; Yes, Louis is back, bumbling around some more, being nice to people and thereby getting them to let down their defences and tell him, nice Mr Louis, the TRUTH, not like those horrible journalists who crash in and get everyone's backs up.

What this amounts to this time is Louis staying over or just knocking around with three American families who have chosen to medicate their troublesome kids. We have 10-year-old Hugh, ratty, superior and friendless, prone to the occasional threat of suicide; 15-year-old Kaylee, whose brother had also been medicated but had grown out of it; and most shockingly of all, six-year-old Jack, a sweet-looking lad, who's been kicked out of school and spends his time in what we'd call a educational unit trying to make Tangram pictures without flipping the fuck out. Darling heart Louis, no matter how hard he tries to give everyone a fair shot (or at least enough rope to hang themselves) and not to let his prejudices shine through, spends an awful lot of the time saying things like: "Do you not think that perhaps he's just a normal kid, and you're just a shite, lazy parent?"

For what it's worth, that is what most people watching are thinking as well, and although Louis did quite well at not making people defensive, as well as showing he'd done more than cursory research into the kids' extensive diagnoses (OCD, ODD, ADHD, Asperger's, Bi-polar), there were times when you were glad that he did just come out and say: "Six years old is a little young for medication no?" Louis hung out with the kids and they seemed OK, although certainly troubled, but of course when he went back to the parents and pointed this out he was told: "Well you should have seen them without the pills" or in the case of the Jack: "No, that wasn't a freak out, but I can set him off for you if you'd like." Alas ethical reasons prevented that, so we ended up taking the mother's word.

And that was where the programme let the side down: It was fair enough for Louis to be absorbed in not overly challenging the families, but there was nobody else to put the case more concretely that the children maybe shouldn't be medicated, or at least not routinely. The parents certainly were aware of the controversy - in the case of the family who were all medicated, (even the dog, although not the daughter) the mother was highly educated and very articulate about the choices they'd made - but that didn't stop you from thinking that there was much, much more going on under the surface. The parents and also the doctors were well rehearsed in their pro-medication arguments, some more convincingly than others, but people who face the same questions over and over again often have their answers down pat, without it making their answers true.

So it was uneven telly, watchable, certainly, but it failed to really say very much, other than: this is what is happening (we know); there may be medicating going on to help parents control their kids or to avoid parents facing up to their own behaviours (this we know); there may well be medication for kids that is actually necessary (this we know although we may be sceptical to the point of not knowing it); we don't know if this is what is going on in any of these cases (this we um knew, or didnt know, well we're none the wiser). Certainly when you hear that one of the kids is diagnosed with the dystopian-sounding oppositional defiant disorder, you can't help but think: wait, are they medicating for opposition and defiance now? In interviews it seems that Louis was much more convinced by the possibility for medicating kids than it appears in the show, but the complete lack of alternative suggestions (as well as hardly any time given to the risks of medication) and the lack of footage of the unmedicated kids left at best half a story untold.