'Dark Tourist' Might Be My Favorite Thing On Netflix Right Now, But I Wish It Went Deeper

The new series about unusual tourism is fascinating, but it barely skims the surface.

Netflix/Rafael Hidalgo for Zimbio

Dark Tourist is streaming now and I’m eating it up with my mouth wide open. The new Netflix Original docu-series — written, hosted, and produced by David Farrier, from the 2016 documentary, Tickled —covers a lot of ground. Farrier, a journalist from New Zealand (think a young Anthony Bourdain/Steve Irwin with big shoes to fill), travels the world in search of strange experiences. He encounters self-proclaimed vampires in Louisiana who actually drink each other’s blood and he embarks on a (definitely unsafe) radioactive tour of Fukushima. This kind of travel is known as "dark tourism," and the people who engage in it are called dark tourists. Voila!

This is a series about the shocking side of travel that's just as appealing to risk-takers as it is fascinating to homebodies who don’t travel much at all. Dark Tourist provides an escape from the mundane without having to leave the comfort of your couch. At the very least, it’s a safe way to spend a rainy Sunday. Simply laze around and learn about customs that feel strange to you, but might be very normal to someone else.

Let me begin with this disclaimer: I like weird shit. I was really excited for Dark Tourist because Farrier visits places I've experienced, like New Orleans, Colombia, Mexico, and Japan. At the same time, Season 1 is comprised of eight 40-minute episodes, and Farrier ambitiously attempts to cover all the bizarre customs found in each region he visits. It's kind of a whirlwind. For example, episode one finds Farrier on a quick visit to Colombia and then Mexico — two very different Latin American countries. He dedicates around 20 minutes to each in hopes viewers can wrap their minds around the complexities of these places. Why are Colombians obsessed with narco-culture? Why do Mexicans celebrate the dead? But it's nearly impossible to do the cultures justice in such a short period of time.

Farrier’s visit to Colombia brings him to the home of drug lord Pablo Escobar's ex-sister-in-law and former beauty queen, Claudia, and then face-to-face with a man named Jhon Jairo Velásquez. Known simply as “Popeye,” Velásquez is Escobar’s former hitman who reportedly murdered more than 200 people. When Farrier meets him, we learn the killer has his own show on YouTube. "Assassin-turned-entertainer" is not a phrase we hear often.

"I don’t want to like you, but I do like you. You’re a very likable man. You’ve just done some very bad things," Farrier tells Popeye, who's since returned to prison on extortion and criminal conspiracy charges.

'Dark Tourist' Might Be My Favorite Thing on Netflix Right Now, But I Wish It Went Deeper
Netflix

As I progressed from Popeye to an Africa-set episode to the last episode of the season (in which Farrier visits the USA to see haunted houses and friends of famed killer, Charles Manson), I can’t help but wonder if the show will be back for Season 2. As much as I enjoy it, the briefness of the episodes causes them to graze over topics that deserve more attention. One faux crossing the border exercise (also in episode one), for example, could’ve been its own documentary. We could've heard from people who’ve actually attempted to cross the border (successful or otherwise) and why they chose to take on such a dangerous task. This, to me, feels like a missed opportunity.

I reached out to Farrier via email to get the scoop on how locations were chosen, where the stories came from, and why his visits were so damn brief.

"There was a lot of discussion in pre-production with our team, which was primarily made up of New Zealanders in our little New Zealand office! Mark McNeill — an EP on the show — had the idea for Dark Tourist years ago and he'd been carrying it around in his notebook,” Farrier revealed. "We did a hell of a lot of research online, then started reaching out to people on the ground to look into characters and stories. We tried to find a wide range of stunning locations that people might not have seen before, like the hermit kingdom of Turkmenistan. Also, themes, like Narco-tourism, that raised difficult moral and ethical questions. At end of the day it all came down to stories. We wanted to find good stories and tell them."

When I asked Farrier about dedicating more time to themes like these, he explains the show is meant to feel more like a rapid tour:

"We chose to base each episode around a loose geographical location," he explains. "This way we wouldn’t end up with an episode that was all 'nuclear tourism' or 'questionable tours' and so on. I say 'loose' because, in a place like New Zealand, everything is close. But then, in America, or South Africa, or Latin America, there are some big land masses and so much variety. All the cultures and people are so different.

"We aimed to divide things up clearly with maps as we jumped around," Farrier continued. "And (we) wanted to keep a lively pace to things to make it feel like you were moving along with us! I could have spent a whole hour just on the driver who impersonated Pablo Escobar. His poor daughter was there, sort of embarrassed at her dad a bit like any daughter is. There could have been a whole documentary just featuring that family. But this series isn't that. We wanted to constantly surprise and mesmerize, so that at the end of an episode you really felt like you got this great span of humanity."

'Dark Tourist' Might Be My Favorite Thing on Netflix Right Now, But I Wish It Went Deeper
Netflix

While Dark Tourist isn't a deep dive by any means, it is a crash course in various international oddities, and a great watch for anyone who likes out of the ordinary experiences. Farrier enjoys what he’s doing which, to me, is the basis for success in any TV or film project. And he’s not mad about having new fans, either.

"To have people engaging in this stuff via subtitles and dubbing and then saying (via Twitter), 'Come to India next time!' is just such a thrill."

I know I’m looking forward to watching whatever he produces next and, hey Netflix, I wouldn't be mad if Dark Tourist became Dark Tourist: The Movie.

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