At any point in your life, ever, have you thought to yourself, “Golly, the American privatized tiger industry is rife with corruption, mysterious deaths, marital scandals, and oddly catchy low-budget country music! I certainly hope a well-known media production company publishes a docu-drama to bring all of these things (and more!) to light!”?
If you are in that minority, congratulations: Netflix has you covered with their complete and utter black horse of a series: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.
If you aren’t in that minority, prepare to become concerningly invested in the lore of American tiger-ownership. The topic sounds unbelievably droll–the rich own tigers, they probably aren’t keeping them in the best of circumstances and hopefully the USFWS does something about it. Those were my assumptions.
There is so, so much more to it than that. Tiger King centers around two major tiger-keeping centers (not zoos, as the latter of the two would hasten to inform you of): Joe Exotic’s GW Zoo and Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue.
There are other major players, of course–Doc Antle, another tiger zoo owner who employs a number of women in conditions eerily reminiscent of those in 1963 Playboy clubs; Mario Tabraue, a private tiger owner/former drug kingpin who, despite having been the basis for Scarface’s eponymous character and doing things like, say, sewing open 223 live snakes, stuffing them with cocaine, and stitching them back together, is the most normal of all the people interviewed; and Saff, the man who got attacked by a tiger, underwent amputation, and returned to work five days later, just to name a few.
The amount of people involved in this world is baffling, it really is. And they’ve all got incredibly wild backstories. While, after the first few episodes, the crew starts focusing in on its stars (Exotic and Baskin), more and more people are introduced.
A huge part of Tiger King’s draw, to me, is its nonchalant way of slapping the viewer in the face every five minutes with, “but wait, there’s more!” to which the audience can only respond with bafflement.
Within the first twenty minutes of the first episode, there’s already so, so much going on, it’s impossible to fathom how things could get weirder.
Take its star, Joe Exotic. You’ve made peace with the fact that he has a horrendous mullet, dresses exclusively in fringe, has a voice perpetually in the tonal range of “pre-teen snorting helium,” a career in country music that isn’t half-bad and is in prison. That’s an awful lot of conflicting information, right? There couldn’t be anything else, right?
Then Tiger King decides to show you some interview clips with one of Exotic’s five husbands. And a clip of his polygamist gay wedding, which is, to say the least, not something people tend to expect from a gun-toting Oklahoman redneck.
The series truly has a gift for establishing a comfort zone in what is a very bizarre situation, then surprising you over and over again with completely wild information. And it is not a trick exclusive to GW Zoo, either!
While memes regarding it are everywhere, I still won’t detail the reveal for spoilers’ sake, but one of the best instances of this is in regards to Baskin. Nobody is safe from Tiger King’s reveals.
Post-release and post-popularity, many of the people featured–including Baskin and her current husband–have released statements countering things that Tiger King has implied.
The thing Baskin seems to have missed, however, is what makes Tiger King so interesting: the crew is barely featured. There are no interviews with experts non-affiliated with the tiger scene, no huffy opinions from quirky-yet-memorable cameramen–everything presented is due to the follies of its stars.
They don’t know when to stop talking.
Every opinion given is that of someone involved. All the information surrounding an incident is given freely. There are only about three characters who seem to know when to keep things close to the vest, especially when being interviewed by a camera crew.
This lack of definitive conclusion on what you’re supposed to do with the information is a bit annoying, I’ll admit. The facts of the story don’t have a good conclusion; the audience is left to form their own.
From a journalistic standpoint, that’s a very good way to cap things off. Present unbiased information; let the audience do what they will.
From a storytelling standpoint? It’s awful and I hate it. I lack the fortitude to be satisfied without someone telling me how to feel.
Regardless, the back half of the series, where things become less zany and more sordid, isn’t where the series shines. Tiger King is, legitimately, more about the journey than the destination.
Mounting twists and turns aren’t all the series have to offer, however. The rivalry between Exotic and Baskin is riveting. At the start of the series is a clipshow of Exotic mentioning Baskin, peppered liberally with expletives, which is but a precursor to the drama to come. Exotic does not like Baskin.
The feeling is mutual, however whereas Exotic gives an impressive number of 20-minute harangues on his distaste for Baskin, Baskin pursues a costly legal battle with him.
Analysis of Tiger King invariably leads back to one question: Who, exactly, is the worst of the main three characters? Exotic and Baskin both do some pretty shady things in the pursuit of their rivalry and plenty of things outside of it as well; Antle, while running what is arguably the nicest of the three establishments, is also employing some pretty egregious child-grooming tactics.
It’s another reason I wish the show had given personal opinions on the events contained. Opinions vary wildly; I, personally, see Antle as the worst of the three. A friend finds Joe the worst of the three, citing the thrall he held his husbands in. My father is convinced Baskin is the worst, mostly due to how perfectly she falls into “crazy cat lady” stereotypes that he is vehemently against.
Tiger King’s inherent ability to spark conversation is undoubtedly another facet of its success. While quarantine was a massive boost for the series’ reach, its success cannot be based entirely on luck. Despite all the wild information and wacky dynamics, Tiger King has more to its name: production quality.
Even compared to other series put out by Netflix (for instance, Car Masters: Rust to Riches, put on the site in about the same timeframe, which has camera-work not out of place on an HGTV series), the quality is stellar. Motion graphics occasionally crop up with old documents, there’s a wide breadth of fantastic aerial shots, the dramatic recreations aren’t overdone and they somehow make even old, grainy security camera footage look polished and professional.
There is visible care put into the editing, and it boosts the series a lot. The editors did a fantastic job, throwing in information at exactly the right time. A lesser crew would have not done the story justice.
The success of the series is twofold: the public has something to talk about and make memes over, yes, but a lot more people are aware of the rampant issues with privatized tiger ownership.
There are a lot of issues with privatized tiger ownership. Tiger King makes the viewer stare them in the face.
Before the series, public awareness about big cat abuse wasn’t fantastic. Baskin tried to raise awareness, yes, but she wasn’t wildly successful. Additionally, the event that by all right should have triggered a wave of activism (in 2011, eighteen Bengal tigers, among other animals, escaped a private zoo on Zanesville, OH, and were shot) did nothing except make an awful lot of people sad for a few days, somewhat akin to the Harambe incident.
In terms of pop culture references, the issue did not have any popular documentaries or other media before Tiger King to do what Supersize Me did for childhood obesity–the closest it got was a song titled Truck Stop Tiger by ROAR, a band known for one song popular on TikTok.
Whether Tiger King will incentivise activism remains to be seen. Its pervasive effect on the American consciousness cannot be denied, however. The series has incredibly good word of mouth. As an example: President Trump said he would, “look into,” pardoning Joe Exotic.
While rewatch value on the series isn’t the best, the show is definitely worth taking the time to delve into. Clocking in at a mere five hours and seventeen minutes, Tiger King is an excellent form of escapism with low commitment.
If collecting tarantulas and hating the bunny NPC in the new Animal Crossing game isn’t your speed, Tiger King has plenty of animals, but with many more suspected murders and bisexual trysts. If nothing else, the series makes for incredibly riveting dinner conversation.