Tiger King didn’t set out to tell a tale of American archetypes, but that’s what happened. Watching a shameless, trash-talking, rule-ignoring rogue face off against a prissy, sanctimonious, bottle blonde high on her own hypocrisy feels familiar. It’s like a rematch between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton replayed against a backdrop of big cats instead of voters. Put it this way: Should the president become aware of this show and weigh in on it, it isn’t hard to guess which side he’d take.
Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, the two lead personalities on Netflix’s documentary series, stand for a lot of things that push our buttons in the ongoing American culture war. That’s a big part of what makes Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness such insanely compelling television, but there’s much more to it. It may be the greatest thing Netflix has ever done, and as such, it marks a breakthrough for the streaming service. (And no, for those animal lovers among you: It isn’t a show about animal abuse, unless you count petting baby tigers as mistreatment, and one of its main characters apparently does.)
To date, Netflix has moved heaven and earth — and spent enough money to buy both — to keep us subscribing, but its brand has become a synonym for lackluster-to-pretty-good entertainment. Tiger King isn’t pretty good. It’s stellar, it’s breathtaking, it’s essential. Your jaw will drop, it’ll drop some more, it’ll fall out of your mouth, it’ll bore through the floor, and then it’ll keep dropping until it comes to rest in the center of the earth. Tiger King may be the first series (five hours spread out over seven episodes, with one more in the works) Netflix has ever produced that you absolutely must see if you want to consider yourself culturally au courant. It’s one of the most amazing things ever produced for television.
Released without much fanfare on March 20 as America was going into hibernation, Tiger King arrived concurrently with a crucial technical innovation on Netflix’s part that will prove essential to its survival as Hollywood’s leading studios withdraw their programs to put them on their own streaming services. In retrospect, it’s amazing that Netflix didn’t think of this before, but it now provides a top-ten list indicating the most popular programs of the moment. This is an Uno reverse card dealt to social distancing: calling up Netflix is no longer a solitary pursuit, isolated from societal trends. Watching movies started out as a group activity, and so did television. But before Netflix started offering a most-watched queue, scrolling through its menu was a dispiriting, frustrating experience: How were we supposed to know which of these thousands of options we should be watching? Now that there’s a ranking system, we know what is capturing people’s attention. We know what others are thinking and talking about. Netflix has now looped us back in with our neighbors. TV is once again a shared experience, as it was for those 60 years when everyone watched Uncle Miltie or Ed Sullivan or Happy Days or Seinfeld or The Sopranos at the same time. Man, we are reminded yet again, is a social animal. If a show is No. 1 on Netflix for any length of time, it’s automatically of interest. It may not be any good, but popularity is useful information.
Tiger King has consistently topped Netflix’s most-watched chart. I won’t reveal any of the surprise developments that take place over the five hours of Tiger King, but the setup is this: a long-running feud between two exhibitors of big cats who got rich selling access to tigers and other exotic animals. One of the rivals, Joe Exotic (né Schreibvogel) from Oklahoma, is a self-promoting, fast-talking redneck who frankly acknowledges he profitably runs a private zoo where eager patrons cuddle baby tigers. The other rival, Carole Baskin of Tampa, Fla., oozes sympathy for nature, dresses like a kooky earth goddess complete with a crown of flowers and describes her business as a “sanctuary” where wildlife run free (behind her fences). She got started by buying exotic animals when that was legal.
Ms. Baskin (with no evidence I can see) publicly charged Mr. Exotic with abusing his animals and launched a long-running public-relations campaign, aided by PETA, to damage his reputation and his business. Baskin’s complaint was that “Exotic” bred big cats (charging people to play with harmless baby tigers) but mistreated or even killed them once they grew too big to play with, at which point they cost so much to feed that they became expendable. Carole doesn’t breed baby tigers, so she believes herself to be above reproach — Mother Nature of the Gulf Coast — though in an unguarded moment, she happily boasts about the tens of thousands of dollars she earns from social-media advertising every time she posts a video about her animals. She wears animal-print clothing at all times; Joe wears a pistol on his hip. He warns that there will be another Waco if anyone messes with him; she wields a more sophisticated weapon, which is the righteous power of animal-rights rhetoric. One of the many amusing moments created by the directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin delves into how little Exotic pays his employees, many of whom have rough backgrounds. Then comes the punchline: Baskin pays her workers . . . nothing.
The big cats are the least exotic mammals in the show, though. One man we meet is missing both legs; a woman had half her left arm removed by a tiger but went back to work at the zoo a few days later. There is meth. There are tattoos. There is gunplay. There are unconventional domestic relationships. As for the two principals, they make the Hatfields and the McCoys look like kissin’ cousins. Across the board, the characters are so rich that they’d make for riveting television even if they didn’t get up to much of anything.
I’ll say no more about what happens in the show because you deserve to discover every amazing development the way I did, completely innocent of any foreknowledge. But all praise is due the filmmakers. Success in documentaries is about three things: editing, access, and good luck. The directors and their editing crew have done the first with amazing skill, although the final two episodes are somewhat baggier than the earlier, nimbly paced ones. The level of access they secured is also a marvel: All of the principals seem to have been happy to talk to them on camera at every stage of the story, frequently being candid to the point of making themselves look despicable, while everything was still unfolding. And because of sheer good fortune, the directors hardly ever have to resort to those cheesy docu-drama reenactments that mar so many documentaries (such as HBO’s recent McMillions). The filmmakers obtained video for almost every story beat. Late in the series, we are even present for a spectacularly horrible development via a reaction shot captured on a security camera.
Tiger King is not what I’d call nutritious viewing. Most of the people in it are horrible, though you may feel yourself drawn (as I did) to rooting for one abominable side over another. But the show is fascinatingly American. It’s impossible to imagine this particular Golden Corral buffet of craziness being laid out in any other country. As for Tiger King’s lingering effect, think of it as a 200-proof slug of all-American moonshine. It may not be good for you, but it certainly gives you a buzz.