‘Tiger King’ Is A Wild Ride, But It Doesn’t Take Us Anywhere

Swayed by Joe Exotic's magnetism, 'Tiger King' ultimately loses its many threads of thought that it to become his most successful campaign video yet.

Tiger King review

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Tiger King, Netflix’s latest true crime documentary series, is a mad-libs that almost never ends. Deep breath: it’s the story of a polyamorous, gay, meth-using, mulleted, redneck and exotic zoo owner who ran for US President against Trump and released several country albums, who hires a hitman to kill his animal conservationist arch-nemesis. Oh, and his name is Joe Exotic — but you already knew that, since he’s arguably the most discussed person in the world right now.

After six years in the making, Tiger King was by chance released at the most opportune time possible, on March 20, aka just when the world as a whole began to stay inside due to COVID-19. Not only did it easily fill up five hours of time, but it gave us something else to talk about — a story so absurd that it sucks the surreal from the air.

Through word-of-mouth, the seven-part series has become one of Netflix’s biggest hits. While the giant doesn’t release streaming numbers, the show hasn’t just sustained Bird Box-esque levels of cultural hegemony for weeks on end, it’s surpassed it. Tiger King is undeniable. It’s everywhere. As we’re caged in our own homes, we roam social media to find only COVID-19, bread baking and memes suggesting Joe’s adversary Carole Baskin killed her husband.

Under a prestigious veneer and self-serious style, Tiger King positions itself as a cut above your standard true-crime saga. And that’s largely in part because it wasn’t supposed to be what it is: documentarians Rebecca Chailkin and Eric Goode, a wealthy conservationist, began Tiger King as an exposé into the underworld of exotic animal smuggling in the US.

As captured in the first episode, the doco stumbles upon Exotic and his Oklahoma zoo, home to more than 200 big cats, by chance. They follow him, and relish in the backwaters they find — an exposé becomes a true-crime character study, losing sight of itself.

It’s understandable, as the weird world of Tiger King is giddily bizarre. Evidently, the big cat industry in America is filled with flamboyantly odd figures. Repeatedly, we hear Goode’s excitement over a new development from behind the camera. When we first meet Baskin, a 50-something wearing tiger print and a flower crown, Goode says, “oh, she’s dressed perfectly”.

But beyond major players, like zoo owner and cult-polygamist Doc Antle, Scarface inspiration Mario Tabraue, and Baskin, whose second marriage photoshoot saw her husband on a leash, the docu-series is filled with minor characters who are no less odd. Just for starters, there’s Exotic’s frustrated liberatarian campaign manager; the zoo’s keepers, who each have tragic tales to tell; and then, there’s his two husbands, who were straight but married him for access to drugs and tigers.

In other circumstances, they’d all be protagonists of their own documentaries. Tiger King simply has no time to linger — in one memorable interview, the manager at Joe’s zoo mentions he lost his legs due to a “tragic ziplining accident”. We hear no more details.

There’s plenty of pain within Tiger King, packed with animal cruelty, drug abuse, brainwashing, tiger maulings and an accidental suicide. But it’s all squashed down by Exotic himself. Swayed by his magnetism, Tiger King ultimately loses its many great threads of thought that it ultimately becomes Exotic’s most successful campaign video yet — an aggressively captivating and bizarre claw at the fame that Joe so clearly craves.

I Saw A Tiger, And The Tiger Saw A Con Man

True crime documentaries are a safe bet for Netflix, almost continually breaking through the content churn to hold our collective attention in a way other (more expensive) efforts can’t. Wild Wild CountryMaking A Murderer and Don’t Fuck With Cats have all managed to capture the zeitgeist, where other attempts at replicating genre success hasn’t always made the cut — the limited success of holiday films, rom-coms or teen period dramas that aren’t To All The Boys…The Princess Switch or Stranger Things show that.

And while it’s easy to be cynical about the ways our content might be reverse-engineered towards algorithmic recommendation, Tiger King accidentally ended up at the peak of the pyramid.

Exotic — real name Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage — wasn’t supposed to be the focus of the documentary, but Goode and Chailkin jumped when they saw a good thing. Their insistence on following him for years mirrors that of another of the documentary’s bit players — Rick Kirkham, a TV producer hired by Exotic to film a reality show, the likely incriminating footage of which ‘mysteriously’ burns up in a deliberately lit fire.

In interviews, Kirkham laughs off his deal with Exotic, which gave him access in exchange for producing Exotic’s YouTube show, which blew up as he doubled-down in the fight against Baskin, often threatening to kill her on air, even going so far as to shoot an effigy of Baskin in the head. But both Kirkham and Tiger King don’t directly question whether Exotic was goaded by the two camera crews he had following him at all times — not directly, of course, but by his need to perform. For all its time with Exotic, Tiger King largely prefers to keep its distance from his psyche. Instead, it lets him inadvertently direct the show, most clear in its treatment of Carole Baskin.

Baskin, who runs Big Cat Sanctuary in Florida, is Exotic’s #1 antagonist: as an animal conservationist, she attempts to shut down his business, which largely relies on charging people to pet baby big cats. The practice is inhumane, and only contributes to the growth of the big cat population in the US, which outstrips those in the wild. Cubs are bred for 12 months of photo opportunities, then either sold on, caged or, in some cases, euthanised.

Tiger King lets Joe Exotic inadvertently direct the show, most clear in its treatment of Carole Baskin.

Baskin’s lobbying against big cat zoos becomes a fixation for Exotic, who eventually pays a zoo worker $3000 to kill her, which the worker does not do. In January 2020, Exotic was sentenced to 22 years in jail for two counts of attempted murder and nine acts against the Endangered Animal act, which included the suspected euthanasia of several big cats.

Baskin, to be blunt, is nowhere near as charismatic as almost anyone else in Tiger King. Her awkward laughs and overly rehearsed one-liners about assassination attempts come off as cold and robotic to Exotic’s lightning on-screen presence. She is a hard person to root for — and that’s before Tiger King dives into her questionable business practices, or the rumours she murdered her wealthy missing ex-husband and fed him to tigers.

It’s true that Big Cat Sanctuary doesn’t rehabilitate the cats it ‘rescues’, makes money off visitors, and relies on volunteers to stay afloat. The show, however, follow’s Exotic’s lead by comparing these to far more immoral practices, rather than the lesser of two evils. Tiger King juxtaposes Baskin’s volunteers to Doc Antle’s harem of young female employees who work seven days a week, and gives far too much time to Exotic’s argument that the Sanctuary is just as bad as his zoo, and therefore worse — as it pretends to be better. At least Exotic is upfront with his immorality, right?

Hey, What About Those Cats And Kittens?

As Baskin lacks the presence Exotic has, his views about her bleed out onto the documentary.

Its entire third episode is dedicated to a theory she killed her first husband, and while there are many, many questions regarding his disappearance, it’s also largely irrelevant — or it should be, except Exotic has determined it’s central, and so Tiger King follows suit. Exotic throws a lot of juicy details out there, and Tiger King captures it all, as it can’t decide exactly what it’s trying to do.

At its best, Tiger King excavates America’s big cat community, showing the ways these animals are both loved and abused by outcasts or the down-and-out, often used as a way to gain and maintain power. By centring Exotic, it also becomes a story of celebrity, where amoral outlandishness is a shortcut to fame and un-impeachable power.  The parallels are obvious, but the documentary is too swept up by Exotic’s point-scoring against Baskin, and loses sight of its original purpose, the animals supposedly at its centre.

A late pivot back to their welfare lands a little too hollow, largely because, again, it’s expressed by Exotic himself. With his empire crumbling, he laments giving up two monkeys to a sanctuary — not for losing them, but for seeing how happy they were out of the cages he kept them in for a decade. It’s not completely ingenuine, but they’re crocodile tears to the camera, considering we’ve seen him do far worse with less response. But Tiger King gives him the edit he’s after and sets the monologue to sweeping music.

Towards the show’s end, Baskin and her husband are seen eating seafood in celebration of Exotic’s arrest, having the audacity to luxuriate in his tragedy — aka, the fact they don’t have to worry that she’ll be killed at any moment after years of torment. At some point during filming, Tiger King gave into Joe Exotic’s own game, deciding fame was always the end goal.

Jared Richards is Junkee’s Night Editor, and freelances from Berlin. This article was part of Take Time, his column on pop culture. Follow him on Twitter.