Shelter in place has brought new meaning to the term “captive audience.” Viewers all over the country are faced with a surfeit of time for binge watching and oh, boy, did Netflix deliver for a quarantined populace with Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. This docuseries, by filmmakers Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, has become a phenomenon on social media and may be the one thing spreading faster than Covid-19. You’ll never get back the seven hours you spend watching Tiger King, but you’ll never forget the principal subject of the series, Joe Exotic, the redneck meth-head with hundreds of lions, tigers, ligers, and other exotic animals in his Oklahoma backyard zoo.
Joe Exotic breeds tigers and offers cub petting at his facility. He runs the zoo with friends from the fringes of society, including his two husbands, neither of whom is gay. He’s is in a feud with big-cat sanctuary owner, Carole Baskin, in Florida. The two volley hostility back and forth on their respective internet shows, and finally wind up in court. Several years and hundreds of thousand dollars in legal fees later, the situation escalates when Joe gets blamed for a murder-for-hire plot on Carole’s life.
While Carole has her own kooky affectations, she seems the most likely candidate for a hero in this story — until we discover that her former husband, a millionaire who started the sanctuary as a private exotic animal collection, went missing under mysterious circumstances and is presumed dead. (The gossip is that Carole murdered him and fed him to the tigers.)
Although the gun-toting polygamy and drug-addled insanity seems like easy comedy gold, Tiger King is actually fairly depressing to watch. While the filmmakers focus their storytelling energy on the people involved, it’s impossible to avoid the issue of the exploitation of the animals, some of which are euthanized (i.e., shot in the head) when they get too old to be safely handled by the public (12 weeks). The preposterousness of Joe Exotic’s empire is laughable until you see the ugly consequences of his lifestyle, including tigers attacking the staff or guests and cubs being removed from their mother seconds after birth with a pole and pulled through a hole in the fence.
A big influence on the people in this series is the idea of reality-show stardom and their on-camera personas. Much of the footage of Joe Exotic was taken while another crew, one for a reality TV show, was filming, and there’s a level of awareness on the part of the subjects of the documentary that blurs the line between “subject” of a nonfiction series and “characters” in a wild, fictional retelling of a life. There’s almost always a question as to whether we’re watching the real Joe Exotic or his reality-TV façade.
Whether we’re seeing the real Joe or a character he’s created for the screen, watching Tiger King feels voyeuristic and a little gross. The episodes start light, but spiral into disaster as Joe loses control of his zoo, and it becomes less and less fun to laugh at him. The series doesn’t strongly advocate on the behalf of the animals, who are sorely victimized by these breeders and private collectors, but the episodes sends a clear message about this disturbing societal underbelly.
The series concludes with a final, devastating statistic: there are only 4,000 tigers left in the wild, and yet there are 5,000 tigers in captivity in this country alone. The absurdity of the series is alluring, and the subject matter is engaging, but it’s more dire than it looks. Expect a wild ride, but don’t expect a light, comedic experience when binging Tiger King.
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