When the world is pushed to its knees by a large-scale health crisis, and millions of Americans are stuck at home with nothing to do but talk to their parents, sometimes all that is needed is a distraction.
There has never been—and probably never will be—a distraction quite so singular and bizarre as “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” the Netflix docuseries that took the internet by storm this week. From tiger maulings to murder conspiracies, “Tiger King” has it all, and it is the perfect show to make the social distancing hours go by a little faster.
The series follows a gay, polygamist, mullet-wearing zookeeper-turned-country singer-turned-reality TV host and aspiring politician named Joe Exotic, and his decades-long feud with Carole Baskin, a big cat conservationist who disapproves of his methods. And if that sentence alone isn’t enough to pique your attention, just wait.
Exotic is the proprietor and publicist of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, a ramshackle private zoo in Oklahoma that breeds tigers, lions and jungle cats for public spectacle—at a price. However, he spends most of his time in front of a camera, flaunting his devil-may-care attitude, militarist principles and outright threats against Baskin to anyone who will listen. He is the ultimate showman, and the zoo is his stage as well as his kingdom.
If the goal of a true crime documentary is to capture the viewer’s imagination, “Tiger King” succeeds at an astonishing rate. Over the course of seven installments, the series manages to one-up itself time and time again, as its bizarre cast of characters share their thoughts on the incredulous events in perfect deadpan.
In addition to Exotic and Baskin, we are introduced to Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, an animal trainer and part-time magician who runs a big cat compound in South Carolina; Jeff Lowe, a fast-living swinger from Las Vegas who buys the zoo from Joe; Rick Kirkham, the Freddy Krueger-esque producer of the reality show; and all three of Joe Exotic’s promiscuous husbands, among others. For all the drama involved, these interviews are the definitive highlight of the show.
“Tiger King” has benefitted from a surge of viewership from quarantined Americans, based largely on the strength of its sheer oddity. If you want to have your jaw dropped every five minutes, this is the show for you. But at its best, it is also a self-aware narrative on the destructive power of cults; the longer you watch, the more you’re left wondering… why do these people put up with this?
“I just kind of felt like I was attached by pain to Joe,” says his political campaign manager Josh Dial, echoing the sentiments of several zoo employees. “I just couldn’t leave him.”
Therein lies the true fascination of “Tiger King:” a twisted web of manipulation, lies, corruption and addiction, with a charismatic tiger-toting sultan in the center. The strongest criticism one can offer may be that the series spent too much time hashing out zoo politics—look, we all know Carole killed her husband—and not enough on the emotional brutality it overshadows.
If there is a season two, that’s what I’ll be looking forward to most. But as far as entertainment goes, this show delivered in a way we desperately needed, and it will undoubtedly be a tough act to follow.