Did the Support/Evidence Used and the Experts Consulted Help Prove a Point in Either Character's Side of the Story in Tiger King?
At this particular moment, the most-watched show in America is a seven-part documentary series about a gay, polygamous zoo owner in Oklahoma who breeds tigers, commissions and stars in his own country-music videos, presides over what he describes as “my little cult” of drifters and much younger men, and ran for governor of Oklahoma in 2018 on a libertarian platform. He’s also currently serving a 22-year prison sentence for, among other charges, trying to arrange the assassination of his nemesis, an animal-sanctuary owner in Florida. And his business allies include another big-cat breeder—a yoga-loving guru in Myrtle Beach who runs what appears to be a tiger-themed sex sect.
In ordinary times, Tiger King probably still would have been a hit. But the decision makers at Netflix had no way of knowing that the date they picked for the stranger-than-fiction series’ premiere, March 20, would fall just as state-wide shutdowns prompted by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic were rolling out across the country. A wide swath of newly cooped up people wanted something to distract them from existential dread. Seven episodes of weirdos, murder, and giant cats? Sign America up. So if it’s felt to you as if everyone you know is watching and posting about Tiger King, you’re not alone. The show placed first on Netflix’s “top 10” most popular shows row over the weekend; it’s been the subject of memes and dream-casting for what seems like the unavoidable feature-film adaptation. And no wonder. It’s an almost infinitely meme-able series, largely thanks to its titular protagonist: Joe Exotic, the “Tiger King” himself, a mullet-sporting former (longshot) presidential candidate with a zoo full of exotic cats and a side career as a country singer. His archnemesis is Carole Baskin, a slightly eccentric animal rights activist who the series suggests might have murdered her last husband (and includes the rumors that she fed him to a tiger). Side characters include one of Joe’s ex-husbands, several former employees, Joe’s former campaign manager, and Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the proprietor of Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina and one of Hollywood’s most sought-after animal trainers, whose massive footprint in the big cat business also takes up a lot of space in the series. And in the pilot episode, Joe speaks by phone from prison, where he’s serving time for conspiring to murder Carole. In seven episodes, Tiger King goes on a wild ride through what brought Joe to that point, Tasmanian devil-ing itself around the world of exotic cats and the people who love them without a lot of direction. The show’s distractedness is both its charm and its biggest filmmaking issue; in my review, I criticized both the aimless storytelling and the way it punts on the big questions it raises. Why are men like Joe and Doc Antle so fascinated by big cats? What about the ways they exploit the people who work for them? And what is at stake in the animal rights fight? If you want answers to questions like these, Tiger King will not help you. Critics have pointed out some of the biggest issues with Tiger King. It masks the way the tigers themselves are being treated. It turns Joe Exotic’s moral repulsiveness into a series of weird character quirks. It chooses the wrong villain in Carole Baskin. It repeatedly misgenders one of its interviewees, Saff Saffery, a trans man and possibly the only truly admirable person in the series.
In fact, he signed over his zoo to Jeff Lowe, a local investor, but the two were at odds with each other up until Exotic fled to escape the murder-for-hire charges. He still maintains that it was all a scheme by Lowe to get rid of him. As the series chronicles Exotic’s rise and fall, including a failed campaign for president and then governor of Oklahoma, it also explores the lives of the many zookeepers who worked for the eccentric zookeeper, as well as several people in the larger big cat community. In the process it paints a picture of a system that encourages abuse and exploitation, and only attracts the seediest of society’s outliers.