'Dark Tourist': TV Review

Not always clearly defined, but frequently eye-opening and weird.
7/20/2018

New Zealand's David Farrier takes Netflix viewers around the world on vacations too dark, blood-drenched, radiation-filled and tragedy-adjacent for the average holiday-goer.

It isn't until the eighth episode of New Zealand journalist and filmmaker David Farrier's new Netflix series, Dark Tourist, that somebody mentions Louis Theroux.

As befits the oddness of Dark Tourist, the interview subject who aptly brings up the British documentarian behind Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends and My Scientology Movie, is Michael Channels, who coasted a wave of fame last fall as a 30-year-old pen pal to Charles Manson and alleged owner of a Manson will.

Amused in this context to be asked why he was trying to be Louis Theroux, Farrier laughs and agrees: "I'm like the cheap version of Louis Theroux."

Jokes aside, Farrier (Tickled) is probably correct that Dark Tourist plays as a slightly less in-depth version of the sort of quirkily humorous, frequently murky immersive nonfiction journeys Theroux has built a career upon. That's probably OK, because Theroux isn't so prolific that there isn't room for the kind of investigation-meets-comedy-meets-light-anthropology that Farrier practices in Dark Tourist. The series isn't always focused or consistent, but it's got ample strangeness and droll laughs, and every once in a while it packs an unexpected emotional punch.

The lack of consistency is hardly surprising. Farrier seems to begin every episode, before a wonderfully macabre animated credit sequence, with a very slightly different definition of what "dark tourism" even is. That definition is usually so strained by the end of 40 minutes that it takes bent-over-backward voiceover narration to impose a theme on his adventures. 

So what is dark tourism? It's the phenomenon of people vacationing in places associated with death and destruction, though Farrier even expands the definition to encompass general "strangeness" as well. He never gets quite so far as to open up the definition to include any trip too inconvenient for any normal person lacking the resources provided by a TV budget, press credentials and the door-opening magic of a video camera. Probably he should. There's nothing all that dark about attending a press conference and rocket launch at Baikonur, the birthplace of the Soviet space program. Even Farrier's attempt to add morbidity to the equation by musing that the rocket in question looks technologically behind the curve doesn't change the fact that this particular expedition, though it might be complicated or out of the logistical reaches of your typical traveler, is something that most people would just describe it as cool.

Mostly, Farrier keeps within a more justifiable range. Over the eight episodes, he continent-hops around the globe, and a number of recurring "dark tourist" variations occur. In the two episodes in the United States, for example, serial killer tours catch his attention, following in the footsteps of Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee and Charles Manson in Los Angeles. He's got a thing for areas of high radiation and wanders, Geiger counter clicking aggressively, through a nuclear test site in Kazakhstan and dangerously close to the radiation-tainted ruins of the 2011 earthquake in Fukushima. Doomsday preppers pop up in multiple episodes, whether as virulently racist, distressingly friendly white separatists in South Africa or more garden-variety American extremists in Virginia.

Farrier likes hastily evacuated ghost towns, whether they were cleared after military conflicts in Cyprus or an economic collapse in Japan. He's also a sucker for eerily tourist-free capitals erected at tremendous expense by dictatorial regimes, be they in Myanmar or Turkmenistan. When watched in a batch, the episodes gives you a feel for Farrier's preferred rhythms. He usually starts with a touristy version of a ritual and then wonders if what he just did was too touristy before booking an intimate visit with a practitioner of esoteric customs. Another pattern involves the frequency with which Farrier walks into a situation involving animal sacrifice and gets squeamish.

Beyond revealing his repeated tropes and platitudes, the episodes collectively showcase Farrier's sense of humor. He's extremely droll, a tactic that allows him to outright insult more than a couple of subjects, who simply don't notice. He's also very good at setting himself up as a fool so that he can learn a valuable lesson, like when he accidentally calls a South African township visit a "slum tour" before apologizing extensively in the next segment, or when he narcs on his tour's coyote in a Mexican border-crossing stunt filled with moments both harrowing and giggle-inducing. He's intellectual and foolhardy in nearly equal measure, slightly favoring the latter approach.

Farrier is unquestionably voyeuristic and exploitative in certain moments, with a corpse-exhuming Indonesian funeral ceremony providing the most eyebrow-raising bits. But you sense he's doing this to emphasize a characteristic of dark tourism, and he tries to expose his own ignorance and dig deeper. He doesn't always succeed. Sometimes the ingrained colonialism of his visits becomes unavoidable, even for someone who's himself a resident of a former colony. But he tries.

Farrier is very good at recruiting unlikely and outrageous tour guides, like Pablo Escobar's favored assassin during a trip to Colombia, or insinuating himself into a situation in a way that gives astounding access, like when a chat with a disturbing British museum operator ends with a phone call to the notorious criminal played by Tom Hardy in the movie Bronson. I often wished he would spend more time trying to learn more about his fellow tourists, since those are the relationships that yield the most powerful beats, like the climax of that trip to the atomic wasteland of Kazakhstan.

It's possible that a clearer definition of dark tourism will evolve as Farrier keeps going and keeps refining. I'm still waiting for an understanding of whether, for example, a Jew traveling to ghettos and concentration camps in Eastern Europe is a dark tourist or a cultural tourist or something Farrier is wisely leaving out of the purview of this show.

These eight episodes are a reasonable starter set of vacations you'd never want to go on, tours you'd be too perplexed to take, museums too weird to visit and a few places just enticing enough to make you investigate a booking for your next holiday. Not bad for a cheap version of Louis Theroux.

Premieres Friday (Netflix)