One of the most unpleasant rumours I can recall emerging from the Balkan wars of the 1990s was of a German agency who organised trips for tourists to “visit” the conflict and even participate. There’s nothing quite so appalling as that in David “Tickled” Farrier’s new Netflix series Dark Tourist, although it does venture into the grotesquely bizarre. He looks at the trend for Nuclear Tourism, for example, in which people flock to soak up the radiation left behind following the disaster in Fukushima, as well as the tourist industry that has built up around the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. He also visits locations in Africa and South America associated with death and destruction that some tourists find somehow attractive, a shameful attraction the makers of Dark Tourist assume is shared to a degree by the viewer.
Although there are strong hints of Louis Theroux in Farrier’s chin-scratching demeanour, overall the series is part of a recent trend for making titillating TV from the world’s troublespots. Its soundtrack and graphics fit the bill: pummelling, Wagnerian motifs knocking you back like Tequila slammers, bursts of brutal fast cuts. It feels a little sordid, as if the miseries of the world are mere fodder for some televisual equivalent of the thrills of extreme mountain biking. On the other hand, you feel a bit chastened in your armchair watching Farrier enduring privations such as a voodoo ritual or narco tours in Pablo Escobar’s old neighbourhood.
From The Misadventures Of Romesh Ranganathan to the range of documentaries produced by Vice (Uganda’s Moonshine Epidemic, The Cannibal Warlords Of Liberia, Nigeria’s Oil Pirates: The Curse Of Oil), there is a deep ambivalence about this particular strain of television. It’s educational, for sure, and takes some courage to produce but seems more interested in wallowing in the colourful weirdness of strife, as well as the ballsiness and endurance of facing up to it first hand, rather than offering any sort of political analysis or possible solution.
A particularly egregious example, it always seemed, was Ross Kemp’s Extreme World featuring the former EastEnders hardman looking suitably engorged, challenging the world’s troublespots to come and have a go if they thought were hard enough. The credits were especially risible, bringing to mind Alan Partridge sitting on the toilet reading Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero.
Once you got past the posturing and the “I was warned by the locals not to venture here but I’m a Mitchell brother, no one tells me where not to go”, he did actually succeed in exposing viewers to some bleak and brutal truths. In one episode, for instance, he investigated the phenomenon of sex trafficking in India, with thousands of girls abducted from country villages to big city brothels every year. He spoke to both the traffickers and to outraged villagers who were taking matters into their own hands. After all that initial posturing, you felt that Kemp himself shared a feeling of impotence in the face of such chronic evil, while the community response offered a sobering and genuinely strong measure of hope.
Meanwhile, in Misadventures, when comedian Ranganathan visits Port-Au-Prince in Haiti, he has a moment of genuine doubt as to what he is doing there. The whole conceit of his stepping bravely out of his comfort zone (a motif of Dark Tourist also) suddenly seems cripplingly irrelevant in the face of the urban despair, while the wry, sidelong glance at the bonkers-ness of it all feels utterly inappropriate, too. “I’m not sure we should be filming here,” he says.
Perhaps the master of this mode of television was Anthony Bourdain. In his series Parts Unknown, you never felt like you were being targeted by some amorally tumescent programme commissioner, seeking out macho thrills at the expense of the locals. When visiting Burma, for instance, he revealed its people not as global eccentrics, gun-toting desperadoes or basket cases for our entertainment but as human beings, conversing with them sympathetically, and inviting them to express themselves not through the varied and yet universal language of cuisine.
Dark Tourist is on Netflix now
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