Whether a feature or a bug, one of the central aspects of the Netflix documentary series “Somebody Feed Phil” is that host Phil Rosenthal is an unabashed outsider. Going to places he doesn’t understand with an open mind and an open palate, it’s a celebration of global cuisine from the point of view of somebody who is experiencing everything for the first time. It’s an approach that works for that show, but it’s strange to see that same humor and surface-level fascination in service of something with far more dramatic weight than a snack from a street vendor.
David Farrier’s new series “Dark Tourist” takes a broad categorization of unconventional global tourist destinations and approaches them with the same voyeuristic tone and format, treating a whole host of global oddities as a set of minor curiosities. The result is a slippery documentary exercise that never ends up illuminating the thing that sets out to capture in the first place, if there was a unified goal for these expeditions all in the first place.
The eight-episode season is broken up mainly by geographic region. One installment sees Farrier traverse Japan, taking some ill-advised trips to areas of Fukushima still drenched in nuclear fallout, and a jaunt through the Aokigahara forest where many people have died by suicide. Grouping these suspect trips by location is an extremely loose way of gathering them together — any attempts to tie them together thematically are tangential at best.
So with each new destination, the overall thesis of the show gets muddier. Hopping between so many locations over the course of 40 minutes puts all of these experiences on a common practical and ethical plane. In many instances, that’s just not the case. “Dark Tourist” is a bizarre amalgam of ill-advised destination profiles, snapshots of individuals with adjustable moral centers, local customs framed as odd by a crew of outside observers. The series’ problems stem directly from the title, a banner that quickly paints anything unfamiliar that Farrier encounters as “bad.”
At some point in a number of these excursions, Farrier’s voiceover narration has a sentence that starts with something like “It’s kind of weird that…” From a mere presentational standpoint, it might be enough to frame all of these trips through this peculiar fascination perspective. But not all of these pursuits have a concrete sense of context to go with them.
The half-hearted attempts to come to any philosophical or moral conclusion at the end of these trips feels like JD at the end of any “Scrubs” episode, neatly summarizing something about the human condition. It’s a decent starting point in theory, but when the final message of his faux Mexican border crossing tour is “For real migrants, this is never fun,” it’s an awfully thin conclusion to draw from a subject that deserves more than someone’s passing whims. Many of these diversions bring out the relative intellectual curiosity of someone wondering where they left their car keys.
Farrier’s approach makes more sense in a longform project. The first-person approach to his 2015 doc “Tickled” worked because it was Farrier allowing a certain level of transparency into an obsessive search for the truth behind a nagging curiosity. After falling down a very particular rabbit hole, that journey led to a single individual. When that same approach gets applied to an existing set of traditions, a thriving subculture, or a questionable institution, the understanding ends at Farrier’s own personal perspective. It’s a poor match for subjects that demand a fuller view beyond an outsider’s cursory first impressions and little else.
Framing this show through Farrier’s eyes limits the real effectiveness of this as any sort of journalistic exercise. We get plenty of examples of why he’s interested in these places, but aside from the odd quick interview with a momentary traveling companion, a lot of the people who come to these places as a tourist exercise are often lumped into one very broad psychological generalization. If there’s any attempts made to understand why someone might be drawn to the hunting ground of serial killer or drawn in by the allure of Pablo Escobar tours in Medellín, it’s a small sample size by virtue of the number of people going alongside Farrier. Taking the view of somebody who’s just going to come in for a few hours saps the deeper understanding of what’s going on inside and behind so many of the practices that he’s seemingly trying to understand.
That thin level of understanding is doubly frustrating when usually there’s one story per episode that merits some longer investigation. Boiling these segments down to roughly 15 minutes inevitably leads to some oversimplification. Trying to orient a viewer to a brand new cultural perspective or common practice in another part of the world doesn’t leave a lot of time for nuance. And something like the debate over the acceptable levels of in Nazi memorabilia in WWII recreations gets a relative shrug because there’s just not enough time to get into it.
“Dark Tourist” also has a strange relationship to levity. Farrier’s a funny guy, and there’s a version of this show that capitalizes on his particular charm as a presenter. But it becomes clear over the course of these episodes that the show’s coping mechanism for handling the darker side of these experiences is to joke about them. It’s understandable as a momentary reaction to something unsettling, but when that attitude creeps into the voiceover, it often seems like a flippant response to something that should be more thoughtful.
And on top of that, Farrier’s narration here may start out as charming, but it comes to signify something sloppy about the way a lot of these segments are put together. There’s truly startling footage in “Dark Tourist,” but whenever there’s something close to being insightful, Farrier‘s voice comes in to overemphasize or catch up things that should be evident from what’s seen rather than heard.
With this pursuit, it’s inescapable that some of the things that the series shows would make a viewer uncomfortable. But there’s little in “Dark Tourist” to mitigate the nagging suspicion that a lot of these segments are suspect from the outset. There are plenty of questions to be had about many of the things “Dark Tourist” wants to capture. It just seems like this show never asks the right ones.
“Dark Tourist” is now available to stream on Netflix.