'Dark Net': TV Review

DARK NET: Showtime original documentary series - H 2016
Courtesy of SHOWTIME
A worldwide web of intrigue and horror.

Showtime's troubling and compelling new docuseries treads into the deepest, darkest corners of the Internet.

Every technology has its dark side, though the Internet has more murky corners than most — at least according to Showtime's engrossing new docuseries Dark Net, which was developed by the tech and media company Vocativ. Consisting of eight episodes running a half-hour each (the first three installments were made available for review), the show explores the roughly 80% of Internet activity occurring in and around the so-called deep web. This is the place Internet surfers would want to go to indulge those fetishes and desires that they'd rather keep out of the public eye. But the series also examines how the technology that makes the deep web possible is now insinuating itself, more and more, into everyday life. Nothing stays hidden forever.

Each episode typically interweaves three separate stories into a provocative package. The titles are evocatively terse: "Crush." "Upgrade." "Exploit." The narration by Lauren Terp strikes a strangely perfect tone between curious and judgmental. And the antiseptic visuals, coupled with the droning score by Justin Melland, suggest Laura Poitras' Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour with a slightly pulpier edge.

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Episode one sets the template, contrasting the stories of a Japanese bachelor in love with a virtual girlfriend, a woman whose ex-boyfriend used private photos of her for revenge porn and a master-slave couple who live in different states but keep in touch via tracking technology. The revenge-porn story is the easiest to empathize with, mainly because it acts as irrefutable proof of how the Internet can nearly destroy one person while giving another one obsessive and sociopathic power. Were it a stand-alone documentary, it's likely the tone would be cautionary and scolding — preaching to the choir of the self-righteous.

But the fact that it's balanced against two other stories where the moral high ground is much less easier to determine complicates things. The master-slave section is so specific to its participants that any larger comment on human nature is difficult to glean. It just is what it is — presentational to the point that the couple's dirty talk and semi-explicit sex play quickly loses its power to unsettle or offend. The virtual girlfriend story also possesses some of that anthropological quality, though here, the filmmakers clearly are attempting to question what this non-human technology means to the future of actual human interaction.

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Contemplation and condemnation, all wrapped up into one, with no easy answers at the end of it all, the fact that Dark Net never allows you to entirely pin down its perspective keeps the proceedings riveting. Episode two follows several people who are augmenting their bodies with technological upgrades. They include a Swedish mother who implants an RFID chip in her hand that contains pertinent data like credit-card numbers and her gym membership and a filmmaker who makes a mechanical camera eye to take the place of the baby blue he accidentally shot out with a rifle as a teenager.

And in the especially wrenching episode three, the series tackles the terrible ubiquitousness of child pornography on the deep web, looking at both the exploiters (mostly Western men) and the exploited — in this case the residents of a village in the Philippines where selling your children for virtual sex is a tacitly accepted practice due to how lucrative it can be. It's as if Dark Net wants us to be simultaneously repelled and seduced by everything we see, a simulacrum of the very emotions the Internet often stirs in its users.  

Executive producers: Danna Rabin, Vivian Schiller, David Shadrack Smith
Creator: Mati Kochavi

Series director: Peter Richardson
Narrator: Lauren Terp

Airs Thursdays at 11 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime