Without sounding too judgmental about it, “Dark Net” – an eight-part Showtime documentary series – is built around a not-terribly-illuminating premise: That there are all kinds of unorthodox, fetishized relationships out there, available to anyone with a good Internet connection. The temptation, of course, will be to gawk at those profiled within the show, which spans the globe pursuing the unusual, from a dominant-submissive pair – living in different cities and mediated online – to Japanese men attached to a virtual girlfriend named Rinko. While some of it is interesting in a circus-sideshow manner, it feels like a late arrival to the “Catfish” party.
The premiere certainly crams a lot of different stories into a single half-hour, cutting back and forth among them. In addition to the master and slave, there’s a woman who was digitally stalked by a former boyfriend – who posted revenge porn pictures of her – and the aforementioned subscribers to LovePlus, which can’t help but evoke the movie “Her” with its adherents escaping into a strange fantasy in which they interact with Rinko as if she were a real girl, even taking her on dates.
Part of the program’s pitch is that it comes from Vocativ, which, per the press notes, “applies exclusive proprietary technology to search and monitor the deep web” – that is, vast recesses of the Internet that fall outside the reach of regular search engines. But there’s still something of a “So what?” quality to much of that, since it hardly comes as a news flash that the Web has become a means for people to engage in all sorts of fantasies without leaving the comfort of their homes.
Stylistically, “Dark Net” would also benefit from relying less on a cinema-verite style, incorporating some third-party voices beyond its omniscient narrator. Instead, the show seems content to simply present these specific case studies, then essentially dare its audience not to look down on uses of the Web the press materials characterize as “surprising, disturbing and seemingly inevitable.”
Granted, the show fits reasonably well with the lurid niche that Showtime has sought to carve out with its late-night reality fare, from “Gigolos” to “3AM,” built around the premise that all kinds of strange stuff is happening out there, and offering a glimpse into worlds with which relatively few are familiar. Yet other than acknowledging that these subcultures exist, what “Dark Net” doesn’t do is shed much light on them.