*Trailer Voice* In a world gripped with anxiety, where people are suddenly trapped in their homes with nowhere to turn, a savior emerges… well, kinda. Truth truly is stranger than fiction in TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM, AND MADNESS.
Seriously, who knew that in our time of need humanity would turn to a flamboyantly gay, gun-toting, tiger hoarding maniac? TIGER KING is the reminder we all needed that no matter how insane the world gets, we can always count on the fact that there’s something out there that will have us saying, “Wait…what?” In its own funny way, TIGER KING is a cure, a tonic, and a comfort in our bizarre times.
TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM, AND MADNESS is a seven-part Netflix limited series. The docuseries centers around the world of big cats, private zoos, and the strange cast of characters that inhabit that world. The story takes a dark turn when the malicious rivalry between Joe Exotic, our titular Tiger King and controversial animal park owner, and Carole Baskins, founder, and operator of the YouTube-famous Big Cat Rescue, turns into murder-for-hire plot. The series is described as a true-crime documentary but it’s more like an all-encompassing human experiment. To put it briefly, truly fucking bizarre. Incredible.
The stars of TIGER KING make up a sort of twisted Holy Tiger Trinity. We have Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the owner of Myrtle Beach Safari and possibly (definitely) grand poobah of a sex cult. Then there’s Carole (fuckin’) Baskins. The flower-crown sporting, tree-hugging, WAY too much animal print in her closet owner and operator of Big Cat Rescue. She is our grand and dramatic foil, fighting against the exploitation of cubs and dedicating her life to the rescue of big cats. Did she actually feed her first husband to a tiger? Maybe.
Which brings us to the Tiger King, himself, Joe Exotic. The words to adequately describe Joe Exotic have not yet been invented. The man is like a mythical figure who meets the scary man you once saw wandering a Walmart after midnight. He is the center of our sordid tale and most likely to be declared a god in 2020.
In orbit around these three titans are some of the craziest side characters you can imagine. We don’t even have TIME to unpack all that shit.
TIGER KING, to put it in its most basic terms, is damn fine television. It’s true-crime. It’s a legal drama. There are cute animals and bikini babes. Sex, power, and obsession drive the series with a reckless abandon that a steamy daytime soap could only dream of. The documentary essentially makes itself, on the merits of its subject. Doubters and non-believers can’t help but be swept in once TIGER KING hooks them, and it will hook you. Remarkably, every episode finds a way to up the ante. It is impossible to end an episode of TIGER KING without an exclamation of, “Wait… what?!”
I mentioned at the outset that TIGER KING doesn’t quite feel like a true-crime documentary. Yes, a murder-for-hire plot is a foundation that this documentary is built on but to call it true-crime is to limit all that the series has to say. Remarkably, the world of TIGER KING is a microcosm of toxic gender performance, a man’s pursuit of the trappings of power, class struggle, and ethics. The players contest for power in this theater of the absurd, risking all financial stability and decency for that elusive power of owning a big cat.
The conflicts of TIGER KING are the most basic and pervasive themes of humanity. Dramas that we have seen played out a hundred times in the cinema. Only now they are presented on the most unusual stage and under the strangest of circumstances. It’s the kind of brilliant that makes the imagination envious. You couldn’t make this shit up.
In terms of editing and narrative presenting, TIGER KING earns an un-ironic chef’s kiss. This crazy tale is perfectly packaged. These figures are extreme and their portrayals are honest to the point of being deeply unflattering. What TIGER KING does really well, from a filmmaking perspective, is it doesn’t seek to establish heroes and villains. Everyone gets a turn under the harsh light of perspective. It’s not pretty, but it’s raw and that’s why we love it.
It would be really easy to write a review about how insane everyone is. How Joe Exotic is a charlatan and Carole Baskin is shady. It would be easy to write about how the petty squabbles of these characters seem to overpower the care needs of the big cats they’ve taken charge of. All of those things are true and they will be discussed at length in the TIGER KING discourse.
However, when I see Joe Exotic in TIGER KING, I see more than an extreme caricature of a man. I see a portrait of profound loneliness. I see an individual that is a bit “much” for the rest of the world and so he’s seeking out love and solace in the only twisted way he knows how. When you’re a person that’s so out there, all you can do is build a safe place for yourself. Joe Exotic is a flawed man, maybe even a bad man. His story is tragic, nonetheless.
TIGER KING is unforgettable. Unforgettable for the truly insane truths it reveals. Unforgettable for being a complete escape from an uncomfortable reality. It’s practically a cultural moment. Don’t skip it. TIGER KING is streaming now on Netflix.