NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he other day Slate ran a piece arguing that Tiger King, a new Netflix docuseries, paints one of its subjects in an unfairly negative light. “I have no idea whether Carole Baskin murdered her husband,” the writer admits a few paragraphs in.
This is the world the show brings us into. If someone doesn’t have a felony conviction, there’s at least a cloud of suspicion somewhere. You can take sides if you want, but it’s probably better to just watch in complete awe as the truly insane, truly American story unfolds.
The series’ protagonist is Joe Exotic, a man who runs an Oklahoma zoo specializing in tigers and other exotic animals. He’s a mulleted, profane, gay redneck who always has a gun at his side. For extra money he travels the country showing off his pets at malls and the like.
Every aspect of Exotic’s lifestyle is bonkers. For much of the show he’s married to two men at once. His large tiger collection consumes utterly ridiculous volumes of food, which mainly comes in the form of expired Walmart meat. That’s what his staff eats too, because he pays them not much more than $100 a week plus rather gross lodgings. He makes over-the-top music videos for his country songs. (It seems both the songwriting and the singing are hired out, though, which the show doesn’t make clear.)
But it’s the mall tours where Baskin, an animal-rights activist, first draws blood. She and her followers investigate which malls he’s going to and pepper them with complaints about the ethics of breeding tigers in captivity, and many agree to stop booking Exotic.
Baskin v. Exotic is the central tension here and, as is made clear from the earliest moments of the show, it culminates in Exotic going to prison for, among other charges, giving a handyman $3,000 to travel to Florida and kill Baskin at Big Cat Rescue. That would be her own zoo, basically — which features only rescued animals and does not breed them.
In the meantime, so much insanity goes down that it’s hard to even list it all. Exotic creates a company called Big Cat Rescue Entertainment to needle Baskin, prompting the obvious lawsuit; he makes numerous graphic threats on his web-TV show; he brings in a rich business partner to bail him out from the legal costs, and it goes about as well as you’d expect.
Oh, and there’s a botched reality show, arson, a fatal gun accident, a tiger maiming, and a funeral where Exotic sings karaoke. One of the film’s sources is a fellow zookeeper who seems to run his business as a harem and is accused of killing tigers when they get too old to do petting events. And don’t forget the entire episode focused on the very mysterious disappearance of Baskin’s former husband. Or Exotic’s run for Oklahoma governor, in which he hired the guy who sold him ammo at Walmart to run his campaign and garnered 19 percent of the vote in the Libertarian primary. (There was a brief panic that he might actually win, for which there was no plan. Where have we heard that before?) One of the subjects does all his interviews shirtless, and amid everything else it didn’t strike me how odd that was until the last episode.
For all the violence and tragedy, Tiger King is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The filmmakers have an impeccable sense of comedic timing that motivates many of their edits, and they have no problem flat-out mocking their subjects. Don’t miss the special close-up of one of Exotic’s husbands during a discussion of “meth mouth.”
A consequence of this, though, is that the serious issues raised here end up sidelined. Everyone seems to think it’s a terrible thing that there are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than there are in the wild, but that reminded me a bit of the tragedy of the commons — if breeding in captivity is guaranteeing that tigers don’t go extinct, is it really so bad? Could we regulate it better, or require those who profit from tigers to support conservation efforts, rather than banning this practice, as Baskin wants? I really wouldn’t have minded hearing from some wildlife experts on what tigers need to thrive and what it takes to meet those needs in captivity, if indeed it’s possible to. I also wouldn’t have minded hearing more from Baskin on why she keeps her rescue tigers in cages and shows them to visitors rather than returning them to the wild.
But this isn’t a freaking environmental documentary, you hippie. It’s a reality show about a bunch of crazy people and the trouble they get themselves into. And it’s perfect to binge-watch during a national lockdown.