Tiger King Holds Up a Mirror to a Dysfunctional America 

click to enlarge Joe Exotic, the Tiger King
  • Joe Exotic, the Tiger King
There’s nothing like being in the right place at the right time.

If you’ve been on social media lately, you’ve probably seen the words “Tiger King.” I don’t know when I’ve seen a show go so viral so quickly. The reason for this is probably the virus.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is a Netflix true-crime documentary that follows the now-familiar beats of the genre. In fact, there’s nothing in directors’ Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin’s seven-episode documentary series that would look out of place in American Vandal, the definitive true-crime documentary parody. Except Tiger King is real.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s hyper-real.

Tiger King is ostensibly the story of Joe Schreibvogel, aka Joe Exotic, the owner and operator of G.W. Zoo in Oklahoma. But it’s the breadth of the cast of weird characters that makes it the show so compelling to watch. Apparently, everyone involved in the business of preserving, showing, and breeding big cats in America is insane — and they all know each other.

There’s Joe, who is some kind of avatar of ultimate redneck energy. He’s got a stringy mullet right out of 1987 and a .357 magnum on his hip. He’s also got dozens of tigers in cages in his roadside attraction, and that infuriates Carole Baskin, the proprietor of Big Cat Rescue in Florida. Baskin's stated mission is to get the tigers and lions (and the occasional liger) who circulate in the black market and give them a safe retirement. Or so she says.

The epic rivalry between the two feline enthusiasts forms the narrative backbone of Tiger King. From the beginning, when Joe Exotic calls in from prison, we know it ends badly for at least one party. But as the story progresses, the question arises of how much is real and how much is fake? Baskin’s social media empire relies on having an enemy to fight and animals to rescue, and Joe, who has more than 220 tigers in his sketchy park, presents a big target. But Joe becomes obsessed with the conflict, even as the lawsuits pile up and his livelihood dries up.

Joe’s mentor is Bhagavan “Doc” Antle. But just what kind of doctor is he? A doctor of “the mystical arts,” says one of his followers. Antle has his own exotic animal park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and trains animals for Hollywood productions. He’s also got a Charles Manson-level cult of personality going, with a harem of “wives” who work the teeming crowds at his park and live on the property. “You can’t get into my complex lifestyle,” he says at one point. “It’s not ready for prime time.”
click to enlarge Bhagavan “Doc” Antle
  • Bhagavan “Doc” Antle
Joe tries, to emulate his hero, but fails. His cult of personality is smaller, but not for lack of trying. Joe is flamboyantly gay and has two husbands, both of whom come to bad ends. In fact, very few people who cross Joe’s path come out whole. There are a lot of people in Tiger King missing limbs. “A lot of people think tigers took my legs. Actually, it was a zipline accident,” becomes a laugh line.

Every documentary is judged by its subject, and this one has great subjects. But another crucial factor is how much footage exists of the events of the story. In this case, it’s a perfect storm of footage. Everyone involved is a relentless self-promoter. They all envy Baskin because she jumped on the social media cyber-hustling video bandwagon first. Joe had a minor country music career, complete with music videos, and filmed 60 videos for social media about the feud with Baskin that ultimately became his undoing. He was also filming a reality television series with a producer whose ethics are questionable at best. But it’s hard to say any of the productions involved exploited these people, since they’re all so dedicated to exploiting themselves.
click to enlarge Carole Baskin, the proprietor of Big Cat Rescue in Florida
  • Carole Baskin, the proprietor of Big Cat Rescue in Florida

Tiger King is made competently enough, but its runaway success is the direct result of the timing of its release. It hit Netflix on March 20th, right when COVID-19 quarantines and shelter-in-place edicts were forcing people indoors. With no sports to compete with for eyeballs, Tiger King captured millions of viewers.

It’s tempting to read something about the current sorry state of the United States in this saga, a collision of Trumpian egos and drummed-up psychodrama, designed and presented at every turn to capture social media clicks. America has always been a land that breeds excellent weirdos, but only now can delusions of grandeur play out on such a public scale. If there’s one moment in Tiger King that sums ups the zeitgeist, it’s when Joe Exotic looks at the chaotic, dangerous, and unsustainable shambles that used to be his life, and says, “This is my way of living, and no one is going to tell me another way.”

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