A Closer Look at Netflix’s Hit Docuseries Tiger King

By now, you’ve probably heard of the 7-episode Netflix Original docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness that has not only landed number 1 on Netflix’s Most Popular Shows list but has also been the subject of various memes, TikToks, and news headlines. 

Netflix’s hit series about actual people and events follows the Tiger King, known by other aliases including Joe Schreibvogel, Joe Maldonado Passage, and most notably, Joe Exotic, and his experiences building a zoo as a polygamous cat breeder and fighting a ruthless battle against his arch-nemesis Carole Baskin, a hypocritical animal rights activist who, the show hints, likely killed her ex-husband by feeding him to the tigers and putting his body through a meat grinder. 

Exploring the world of big cat breeding, co-director Eric Goode makes a few appearances throughout the show, apparently more and more bewildered each time by the world of illegal animal breeding, abusive relationships, polygamy, harem cults, chewed-off arms, guns, drug addiction, smuggling, embezzlement, arson, attempted murder, and suicide that seems to be the norm for Joe Exotic and his partners. Despite the serious nature of all of the aforementioned topics, the way they play out in Tiger King is a twisted mixture of sad and entertaining, especially when the “gun-toting, mullet-sporting, tiger-tackling” Joe Exotic is at the center of all of the drama. Oh, and did I mention he ran as a presidential candidate in the 2016 election and has a country music career as a side hustle? 

Other characters in the show are no less bizarre, including fellow cat breeder Bhagavan “Doc” Antle who has a Ph.D. in “mystical sciences” and runs Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina with female staff members that are not only all married to him, but are also part of a harem cult that requires them to legally change their names, undergo enhancement surgeries, and refer to Antle by the Sanskrit word for God. Though less alarmingly eccentric, Joe’s ex-husbands, campaign manager, and zoo staff members are also thrown in the mix and provide their insight on the series of events that led up to Joe’s incarceration at the Grady County Jail of Chickasha, Oklahoma, for the attempted murder of Carole Baskin (and 18 other counts). 

Though the show loosely follows the story of how Exotic started up G.W. Zoo and the way his hatred toward Carole Baskin escalated, culminating in his arrest after paying $3,000 to a hitman and losing his zoo to his former business partner Jeff Lowe, the focus seems to be derailed in the simple effort of providing background on the different characters, given their individual complexities and idiosyncrasies so far from anything considered remotely normal.

In fact, I had to ask myself repeatedly what Tiger King was really about after watching it. Are we supposed to be entertained by the craziness that is Joe Exotic’s life? Should it renew interest in the 1997 disappearance of Carole Baskin’s husband? Should we think differently about the way animal rights activists go about their battles? It certainly accomplishes a little bit of everything, yet it doesn’t answer the bigger questions I expected it would by the end of the series.

For example, I was hoping the show would more deeply consider why animal breeders like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle had such a strong connection to big cats. Or the ramifications of exploiting vulnerable people who are homeless (in Joe’s case) or women that can perceivably be taken advantage of (in Doc Antle’s case) for work. Or perhaps the way animals–especially endangered tigers who live in captivity more than the wild–are affected by living in cages and being profited off of by businesses with rotating ownerships which have feuds that develop into murder missions. 

It seems as though the very strength of this docuseries is its downfall. The filmmakers’ attempt to cover all the characters’ stories and experiences contributes to the frenzied entertainment and allows for the show to be made into so many memes based on the characters’ hysteria. Yet it’s this same obscured focus that detracts from considering important ethical questions that arise in every episode. 

Goode, a philanthropist and conservationist himself, and his co-director Rebecca Chaiklin, a veterinarian documentary producer, sought to shed light on the experience of exotic animal breeds in captivity in the US. However, although the show may have started with that as the focus, given all of the TV reels of politicians and news anchors shedding light on the magnitude of the situation in the pilot episode (and the audience expecting answers about why all of it was happening by the end of the series), it seems as though the filmmakers soon got caught up in the chaotic nature of Joe’s world (albeit, with reason). 

During the final scene, Joe finally understands the problematic, immoral way he conducted his zoo by imprisoning animals that want the freedom Joe held for so many years and abused. Statistics about tigers being endangered and the consequences that people like Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and Carole Baskin faced for keeping animals in captivity flash across a black screen, leaving viewers to sit with the show’s last-minute attempt to impress upon its audience the condition of exotic animals. Yet it seemed almost awkward and out of place after seven hours of vulgarity and exploitation for the purpose of entertainment. The sudden shift in tone, however, certainly points out to viewers the aspect of the show that isn’t just about laughing at a bunch of rural rednecks, but rather understanding the seriousness of exotic cat breeding.

 At the end of the day, the show is disturbingly entertaining enough for you to keep watching episode after episode, with a few reminders here and there about the corrupt nature of the cat breeding scene and all parties involved–even the seemingly good guys. Should we feel guilty about taking pleasure in a show that attempts to expose animals and people being exploited? Should we think twice about how the docuseries practically makes a mockery out of some serious, societal stigmas, but then sheds light on the hardships of others? And what should we feel toward the filmmakers that continuously misgendered Saff Saffery, a trans man who is practically one of the only sane people on the show? Regardless of a captive, quarantined audience eating up a series that so radically contrasts with our now simplified, sheltered lives, I think Tiger King would have been a hit whenever it released. Yet it’s probably worth it to ask ourselves underneath all of the laughs about Joe Exotic’s failed presidential candidacy (and the campaign condoms with his face on them) or the fact that corrupt former businessman James Garretson who turned into an FBI informant looks like a literal egg, what underlying concerns that Tiger King fails to explore do we as a responsible audience have left to consider?

Image source: Variety Magazine.

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