The beauty of Netflix’s new travel show, Dark Tourist, hosted by David Farrier of Tickled fame, is that it harnesses much of the lurid energy of classic “Vice Guides To…” videos of the late aughts, getting at their root appeal, but without mimicking any of their trappings. A lot of that is due to Farrier himself, who’s the furthest thing from a tattooed edgelord.
Sure, it’s a slightly edgelord premise, with “dark” in the title and a stated promise to take us off the beaten path and find the lurid and macabre, but Farrier is a calming presence; honest, curious, and a bit wry. In short, a model of Kiwi reserve (if you’re unfamiliar with the national character of New Zealand, the easy shorthand for Americans is that New Zealand is Australia’s Canada). He’s the kind of guy who’ll meet Pablo Escobar’s lead hitman while wearing pink shorts with flamingos on them. Farrier’s natural New Zealandness makes Dark Tourist a little like Vice Guide meets Flight of the Conchords.
When the rubber hits the road, Farrier proves no less curious or ballsy than Shane Smith or Anthony Bourdain. Over the course of the show, he ends up swimming in a radioactive lake made from a nuclear explosion in Kazakhstan and gets injected with Ketamine in goofy totalitarian tinsel-state Turkmenistan. He’s not an entirely detached observer, an NPR-type host who treats his subjects like they’re in a human zoo. And he’s not above joining the party — he just does it without coming off breathless, credulous, sensational. There’s a particularly representative moment in the USA episode, as a tour guide holds two divining rods, crossing them to show that the ghost of Jeffrey Dahmer is present with them on the tour. Farrier turns to a companion and asks “this seems like bullshit, right?” and they leave. I guess the short answer to why I enjoy Dark Tourist is that it seems like the kind of travel show I’d make (if I was a little more careless about my personal safety).
Of course, with its thematic similarity to Vice and racy pitch, Tourist is practically begging for the same kinds of criticism. A recent Guardian review lumped it in with a larger trend that it branded “extreme travel,” which it called “sordid and shallow.” Though a closer read reveals that most of the criticism is aimed at other shows Dark Tourist had the misfortune to remind them of.
Travel is always a tricky balance. Any place with regular visitors is naturally going to create a market for locals to sell outsiders their own preconceived notions back to them. How harmful tourism is to a place depends largely not on whether tourists visit or not, but how respectful they are when they get there.
I got to pick Farrier’s brain about it this week by phone from New Zealand (after a few time-difference-related snafus), asking all the questions on my mind, from his philosophy of travel to where he got those sweet shorts.