Published on March 31st, 2020 | by Keegan Barker0
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness
Tiger King, the top shows on Netflix (as we all Covid hunker down at home) is a rich example of truth being stranger than fiction.
When I first described the premise of Netflix’s newest crime documentary series to my girlfriend, she said, “It’s not a documentary…right? Like it’s not real?”
It is. And it’s one of the most bizarre documentary series that I’ve ever seen. It has everything: eccentric characters, wild animals, rivalries, outlandish egos, and murder plots. Any show with even two of those listed attributes would be an exciting watch. And yet, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has all that and more, and it constantly keeps its audience in a state of shock, awe, and utter disbelief.
I would say that Tiger King’s premise is straightforward; it just happens to be incomprehensibly strange and unique. Essentially, the series explores the world of exotic animal trading in the United States, particularly that involving big cats like lions and tigers. The show touts in its denouement that there at least 5,000 tigers kept in private collections in the United States, and only 3,000 left in the wild. People can buy big cat cubs for a paltry $2,000 USD, but they run into significant issues when the animals mature. When that happens, the animals become both very expensive and very dangerous. However, there are organizations and foundations which will readily take the cats in and provide them with their necessary care.
Unfortunately, beautiful nature parks are not seen in the show. Instead, the series explores the inner workings behind some very questionable zoos, and their very peculiar owners. The bulk of the show focuses on Joe Exotic: The self-proclaimed Tiger King. He’s a gun-totin’, free speechin’, country singin’ gay polygamist from Oklahoma. His pride and joy, GW Zoo, is home to almost 200 big cats and other exotic creatures. Joe Exotic is an absolute anomaly of a human being, and he has a magnetism the camera loves.
His rival is Carole Baskin, an animal rights advocate who runs Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. Much of the show is spent examining the origins of their feud, and the escalation from mocking each other on social media, all the way to highly illegal activities and accusations including fraud, copyright infringement, and animal abuse. In addition to those two bitter enemies, the series tangentially documents another exotic animal park owner named Bhagavan “Doc” Antl. He’s an odd character, mainly because he seems less like a zookeeper and more of a cult leader, and that knowledge becomes much clearer as the show progresses.
I think what makes the series an anomaly is that the characters, while entertaining, are not terribly sympathetic. All three of the primary animal keepers are out of touch with reality and immersed in their inflated egos. Even Carole Baskin, who the series initially aims to paint in a better light, has certain quirks and characteristics that make her unlikeable; her past and possible criminal allegations add to the disdain for her. But I think the unpredictability of the documentary is what keeps people glued to the screen.
For example, there is an episode in which Joe embarks on a political campaign, and then switches gears when he must contend with a very sudden and tragic event in his personal life. Tiger King takes a page out of the books of such documentaries as Icarus (2017) and Dear Zachary (2008), as the documentarians did not necessarily have an intended plot for the series. They simply documented interesting people in interesting situations, but never planned out the conclusion to the story. While some of the episodes suffer from some pacing issues, everything in the show is organic and raw, and beautifully captures these beautiful lunatics and their vanity projects.
When I first heard about the premise of Tiger King, I admit that I was expecting a documentary in the same vein as Blackfish (2014), which would be an in-depth (and biased) examination of animal rights, such as captivity of dangerous animals for entertainment purposes. Initially, the film does that by looking at the exotic animal trade and cub petting, which is the practice of breeding big cats to use the cubs for photo opportunities. “Who doesn’t wanna pose with a baby tiger?” is an oft-repeated mantra throughout the series.
However, the series focuses more on the eccentric animal owners instead of the animals themselves. That’s fine, but I thought it was disappointing that the series did not flesh out the moral quandaries about animal welfare, or proper care and conservation for the (very dangerous) featured animals. If you ask me, the lack of exploration into these issues is reminiscent of the characters’ own journeys from idealistic animal lovers, to greedy egomaniacs.
Overall, the show follows the Netflix crime documentary formula, but it stands out because of its eccentric characters, unique subject matter, and plot twists. While it’s lacking in any real moral questioning of the exotic animal trade, Tiger King takes its audience on an exploratory journey of conspicuous consumption, rivalry, and believing in delusions of self-grandiosity.