Television is littered with travel shows about the many luxurious and cozy corners of the globe, but what it’s so far lacked is a program that transports viewers to the most dangerous, off-limits and inappropriate sites and scenes the world has to offer an intrepid vacationer.
Enter Dark Tourist, an eight-part series debuting exclusively on Netflix this Friday (July 20) that celebrates the craziest hot spots accessible via a passport and a tank of gas—or, in some cases, the forbidden locales guarded by humorless military police. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to take a jaunt to a nuclear fallout zone, experience a voodoo initiation ceremony, snoop around Jeffrey Dahmer’s old stomping grounds, or hang out with Pablo Escobar’s top assassin and Charles Manson’s best friend, this is definitely the bonkers bingeable entertainment for you.
Dark Tourist is the brainchild of journalist and documentarian David Farrier, the New Zealander responsible for 2016’s Tickled—an eye-opening non-fiction feature about the secretive world of “competitive endurance tickling,” which is as insane as it sounds. For his latest, Farrier seeks out similarly wacko points of interest, although in this case, those are geographic in nature. With each episode featuring three or four different route stops, all of them located on a particular continent, Farrier’s show fixates on areas defined by death and destruction. It’s an attempt for him to enter the places one is supposed (or outright told) to avoid—and, in the process, to provide us with the vicarious thrill of checking them out from the comfort and safety of our own homes.
Spurred by a comment from Charles Manson’s pen-pal buddy Michael Channels, Farrier confesses that he’s often thought of as the cheap version of Louis Theroux, the BBC documentarian responsible for numerous specials as well as My Scientology Movie. While that comparison isn’t completely inapt, Farrier has a distinctive aw-shucks demeanor that suits his endeavor well. Dark Tourist is the work of a cheery, good-natured, curious individual drawn to the ugliest side of human nature, and it’s that contrast which gives the series its potent energy. Over the course of each 40-minute installment, Farrier gets himself into situations both strange and perilous, which is all the more captivating because he comes across as a fundamentally jovial sort of wide-eyed explorer—and one who, it should be said, isn’t above making, and then admitting to and apologizing for, mistakes, as when he calls his visit to Johannesburg’s crime-ridden townships a “slum tour” right in front of his local guide.
That self-confessed faux pas to the contrary, Dark Tourist is an empathetic portrait of Earth’s bizarre and macabre tourist offerings. That’s clear from the opening chapter, set in Japan, in which Farrier takes a bus ride through towns decimated by the Fukushima atomic disaster, where personal Geiger counters begin buzzing so furiously to indicate elevated radiation levels that everyone aboard the trip decides to call it a day—albeit not before Farrier tries to sneak into quarantined zones. He again takes significant chemical-fallout risks when, in episode five, he ventures to Semey in Kazakhstan—where the Soviets detonated hundreds of nuclear bombs from 1949 to 1989—and takes a swim in Atomic Lake, where he’s told not to dive too deep lest he emerge with inexplicable extra body parts.
Farrier is perversely enticed by things that are unsafe and unseemly, be it a haunted house where customers are literally tortured, a South African homestead where an Afrikaner family lives each day preparing for a “race war apocalypse” (and acting out their escape-plan fantasies with other fellow loons), the ghost town of Famagusta, Cyprus where Turkish officials threaten intruders with arrest or gunfire, or the Turkmenistan capital of Ashgabat, a sprawling new metropolis that’s virtually empty and ruled over by a president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, known for surveillance-heavy oppression. Dark Tourist is, in this respect, an attempt to shine a light on those locales most shrouded in darkness. Farrier routinely ignores warnings and common sense to infiltrate off-limits districts. And though his efforts are often a bit stunt-y in nature, there’s nonetheless something amusing and thrilling about his dedication to putting himself in harm’s way to see, and participate in, things situated far off the beaten path.
Dark Tourist is divided between vignettes in which Farrier visits weird/isolated/prohibited settings, and others that have him going to notorious crime-related scenes: Manson’s old hangouts; Escobar’s neighborhood; JFK’s assassination spot; and Dahmer’s haunts. In those latter instances, he discovers numerous individuals exploiting past tragedies (and/or their own misdeeds) for personal gain, which is about as close as the series gets to having a consistent thematic focus. Farrier is upfront about his own conflicted attraction/repulsion feelings toward these locations (and their touristy economies). Still, he never succumbs to judgmental condemnation of his chosen subjects—save, perhaps, for the proprietor of England’s Littledean Jail, whose deviant displays (a Nazi lampshade made of human flesh; dioramas of KKK members holding African-American babies; SS officers raping prisoners) are made even more repulsive by the inaccurate-but-titillating way in which they’re presented to customers.
Like those Farrier meets along the way, Dark Tourist is captivated by serial killers, historical atrocities and depraved psychopaths—for reasons it can’t quite articulate, except via platitudes about how being in uncomfortable or horrific environs enhances one’s appreciation for everyday life. At many stops along its way, it finds Farrier grappling with his own participation in (and thus partial responsibility for) the circumstances he’s witnessing. Most of the time, however, the series is simply content to inhabit wacko spaces that people generally can’t, won’t or don’t, and to pass along that rush to audiences in a fun, easily digestible package guided by Farrier’s witty, self-deprecating charm.
That alone makes it a unique entry in the travelogue-TV subgenre. And in those rare moments when it digs deeper into the nightmares which produced its dark and disturbing tourist traps—most poignantly, during an outing to a Kazakhstan children’s hospital populated by kids scarred by Soviet bomb radiation—it affords a bracing up-close-and-personal view of a harsh reality from which so many of us are sheltered, but about which we should, and now can, be aware.