“I don’t generally use hierarchical terms in my poly-dynamics,” says Joelle, one of several co-habiting residents of an eco-homestead in Portland, Oregon. “I have four ‘sweeties’.” No, this isn’t an episode of Portlandia – Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s loving pastiche of the US city’s hippy-dippy ways – this is the very real world of ethical non-monogamy.

In the first episode of Louis Theroux’s Altered States (BBC2), a three-part series exploring “the new ways Americans are approaching some of humanity’s oldest dilemmas”, Theroux meets couples, “throuples” and beyond, who have opened up their relationships in an attempt to escape the stifling boundaries of monogamy. Some, it seems, have done so with more success than others.

Amanda, Nick and Bob, Dungeons and Dragons-loving IT workers, are in a three-way relationship – although Nick and Bob aren’t romantically attached. Theroux, a glint in his eye, encourages the trio to demonstrate their night-time spooning ritual.

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Heidi and Jerry, meanwhile, opened up their marriage 12 years ago. Heidi has a new fiancé, Joe – Jerry is yet to find another partner. Joelle and her aforementioned sweeties, though, seem to have the most complicated dynamic of the lot – largely because one of her partners, Matthias, is expecting a baby with his girlfriend AJ. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” says Matthias, as Theroux cracks eggs for breakfast, squinting sceptically at them all.

For his part, Theroux demonstrates his trademark mix of awkwardness, schoolboy silliness – “I put too much cheese on my plate,” he moans at an erotic eating event, at which participants gain sexual satisfaction from feeding each other blindfolded – and warm, innate capacity for empathy. He is often puzzled by the people he meets, but never derisive, offering up measured, thoughtful observations. “It seems as though with love and relationships, there’s no perfect way of doing things,” he tells Matthias. “The idea that you can avoid pain is illusory.”

He allows his subjects plenty of room, too, to articulate the emotional logic behind their unconventional lifestyles. “Let’s say, Louis, that your wife decides to start dating somebody else,” says Joe's wife Gretchen, of her decision to allow Joe to date other people, “and she is happier, she is more aware of what’s going on with herself and how she can be fulfilled, and she comes home, and you are the beneficiary of that happiness. I want Joe to be the happiest person he can be, but I am not qualified to do that for him.”

Though it’s unlikely to convert the masses, the opening episode of Altered States offers a compelling, unprejudiced insight into the complicated world of polyamory. “For a moment,” concedes Theroux near the episode’s end, “the idea of a world in which the currency of sex and love was more free flowing made a tiny bit of sense.”

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