It’s a problem that Tiger King is one of the strongest competitors for most watchable TV show of the year. A documentary miniseries with seven short episodes, each under an hour, you could finish it in a weekend; considering the subject matter, you’ll probably finish even faster.
Joe Exotic, the one-time proprietor of a successful-looking private zoo with over 200 tigers and other big animals, is the subject of a Netflix series about a man who is both larger than life and suffocated by it. He’s a man who ran for president of the United States, then governor of Oklahoma, and may have tried to hire someone to assassinate his adversary, a woman dedicated to shutting down his zoo, at some point afterward.
It’s both enthralling and terrifying: Tiger King is nearly entirely dedicated to spectacle, with little regard for the truth. And the truth is as harrowing as Tiger King is thrilling.
Joe Exotic, who plays the eponymous Tiger King, is magnetic: a ball-capped, mulleted man who swaggers with a knee brace and a drawl, and always wears a mix of fringe vests, chaps, and bedazzled shirts. You’ve never seen somebody like him on television. The oddities of Joe Schreibvogel are accompanied by a terrible past that Tiger King will reveal piecemeal and in passing.
For the first few episodes, we meet him almost fully formed: a man with a larger-than-life personality and equally huge cats who has built a modest business that has somehow disintegrated and left him in prison.
Every minute of Tiger King reveals a new surprise, an astonishing twist, or a charming stranger with incredible tales to tell. Joe Exotic reveals us how he married two guys at the same time, went into business with a guy who stole tiger cubs into Vegas casinos, and nearly got mauled by one of his own lions, among other things.
The show veers into extremely dark territory without warning, as its subjects recount manipulative and abusive relationships, a suicide, and Joe Exotic’s long-running hate campaign against Carole Baskin, an activist dedicated to ending big cat ownership in America, whom Joe Exotic also believes murdered her wealthy husband for money.
As the film progresses, its greatest strength — the plethora of amazing stories it has to give — becomes its most troubling flaw, as the producers don’t appear to care as much about presenting a storey about their subjects as they do about milking them dry. Tiger King serves no purpose other than to provide dramatic thrills and to credulously showcase everyone it puts in front of the camera.
The show, for example, does not provide any context for how seriously you should take the allegation that Carole Baskin murdered her husband — so now this allegation is grist for the content mill, with real-world ramifications: new leads in the case of Baskin’s missing ex-husband are being sought out.
You’ll probably wonder whether there’s more to the storey after watching Tiger King, and you’ll be right. A casual look for facts will almost certainly lead to a 2019 New York Magazine storey on Schreibvogel and Baskin’s intertwined past, rebuilding their early lives and chronicling their animosity.
Also read: Our Planet review
When told in prose, the storey is significantly more dismal than the show’s brief glimpses of sombre distress. Both Schreibvogel and Baskin are said to have been abused, plagued by tragedy, and embraced by unusual circumstances.
In each of their lives, truth is elusive; Schreibvogel looks to be a serial fabulist, while Baskin’s public identity is distinct, with few public associations other than the cats she keeps on her preserve. Lives are lost in their orbits, the most majority of them are sacrifices dedicated to the Tiger King myth.
Viral celebrity comes with a level of complicity that is difficult to reconcile with shows like Tiger King. Direct action is often the source of attention in the streaming era. In terms of how we occupy ourselves, there is very little passivity left. We pick and select what we watch, recommend, and listen to, so when something like Tiger King becomes a viral sensation, it feels natural, as if it’s something we’re all talking about.
As a result, Tiger King becomes content that generates more content on websites and social media, leading to more people returning to Tiger King. As a result, the exceedingly online eventually become amateur sleuths, filling Florida tip lines regarding a decades-old murder case. Suffering becomes sport, but also a call to action, in this cycle — something that can be said of a lot of true-crime media.
It can be seen in the way My Favorite Murder’s popularity encourages listeners to have a spiteful view of police enforcement, or in the entire cottage economy that sprang up around Serial’s first season, which spawned an entertainment empire centred on the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed. It’s a phenomenon fostered by our desire to find answers where there aren’t always any.
We post into the infinite when there is no conclusion. The internet’s tyranny seeps into the actual world: if there’s enough stuff, it eventually becomes real life. The tiger king has swallowed us.