Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, the Netflix original documentary that’s taken the internet by a storm, is a wild ride from start to finish. The seven-episode limited series dives into the eccentric world of roadside zoos in America and the larger-than-life characters who operate them. But to say that this show is in any way about the serious issue of captive tigers in America would be far from the truth: this is a show that gives in completely to the oddities of the people it’s about. It’s filled to the brim with meme-worthy content, and in times of crisis, it’s the exact distraction many viewers need. At its best, Tiger King is a sociological documentary that hints at conservation; at its worst, it’s a cocktail mix of reality TV and true crime that makes for instantly binge-able entertainment.
Even if we weren’t all starved for an escape from the reality of quarantine, Tiger King satiates an endless hunger for sex, drugs, and murder in entertainment. That the characters in question range from a recovered meth addict with missing teeth, a woman rumoured to have fed her ex-husband to tigers, a former Cuban drug lord, and a white man with a Hindu name and “nine wives” is just the icing on an already chaotic cake.
Joe Exotic, an Oklahoma zoo owner and the central figure of the show, is a kaleidoscope of a man: a polyamorous, gay, gun-loving redneck with a dyed-blond mullet, tattoos, and an eyebrow ring that dangles through a distractingly thin slice of skin throughout the series. The filmmakers do not let a shred of Exotic’s comically outrageous behaviour go unmentioned, from his (lip-synched) country music videos to his failed attempt at running for president. We even find out about his Prince Albert piercing, for some reason.
His long-standing feud with Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin is a tenet of the show and ultimately leads to his arrest and imprisonment for a murder-for-hire plot against her. The tigers, and the other animals held in cages throughout the series, become secondary—tangential to the plotline of Exotic and the world that consumes him. Whether unwittingly or not, the series has boosted Exotic to celebrity stature, spurred by memes and online calls for his freedom. That this man has shot at least five healthy tigers, and illegally bred many more, seems lost in the potency of his internet likeability.
Throughout the documentary, we get the feeling that Eric Goode, the filmmaker, is himself taken along with the bizarre twists and turns of the documentary with us. On screen, we see him discover in real time the casual accusations that Baskin fed her ex-husband to a tiger—which leads to an entire episode dedicated to the subject. The deeper Goode is pulled into this ever more unbelievable world, the further he strays from the animals themselves. Because of this, Tiger King relies more on the shock value of its absurdness than anything of substance. It’s only in the last episode that we see a somewhat lacklustre call to protect the animals that are supposed to be the centre of this show, and yet have no real role at all.
Tiger King not only drips with the debauchery of its characters but is itself part of that excessiveness.
From an educational perspective, little information is actually given on the underworld of exotic animal breeding and captivity in America. There are ample chances for Goode to include more in-depth reporting on the issue. While visiting Bhagavan “Doc” Antle’s Myrtle Beach zoo, Goode watches Antle play with a giant liger. Antle makes a casual remark about not calling the animal “liger” in front of others because of the backlash he would get, but nothing more is said about the subject. Ligers are an unethical mixed breed of a male lion and female tiger, two animals that would not encounter each other in the wild—except in a small region in India, where no natural ligers have been found. There is no reason to crossbreed tigers and lions, except to profit from them in zoos and attractions. Ligers are bigger than either tigers or lions at around 11 feet long, and as Tiger King itself demonstrates, the common thread in American entertainment is the bigger the better.
Wesley Morris, in a podcast for The New York Times, remarked about the series, “It just seems like this is the sort of thing that could only happen in the United States of America.” And indeed, the entire show feels like a caricature of how much of the outside world views America. The capitalist exploitation of animals for profit; the appropriation of names and symbols of other cultures (Antle’s chosen name Bhagavan is a Hindu term meaning “Lord”); the fierce displays of individualism and land rights, propelled by blatant and adamant gun usage; and the liberal use of hateful speech, including many colourful death threats by Exotic to Baskin.
This sense of glut is indicative of a culture that feeds on excess like an ouroboros. Tiger King not only drips with the debauchery of its characters but is itself part of that excessiveness. The majority of the seven hours that make up the documentary give the stage to these characters for the sole purpose of entertainment. Characters who are now the fodder of gossip tabloids and spinoffs—there are already indications that a new series is in the works dedicated to the accusations that Baskin fed her ex-husband to the tigers.
The internet can’t get enough of Tiger King, and for all the wrong reasons. Though in times of crisis, when normal life has been capsized and each day it is uncertain how the world will turn, the absurdity of Tiger King is a necessary distraction for many. In the chaos of now, there is a collective comfort in embracing something even more chaotic.
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