“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is an eight-part Netflix docuseries that seems to have fallen into our laps at the perfect time. The wild story has captured the attention of audiences everywhere and proven itself to be a wonderful escape from the crazy world we are currently living in. The show has become the subject of many internet memes and videos. The docuseries definitely brought us some much-needed laughs, but was the story really told in the most effective way?
Directed by Eric Goode, “Tiger King” follows the lives of three different exotic cat owners in the United States. While what links the three stars of the show is their fascination with exotic cats, it quickly devolves into an exposé on the personal lives of Joe Exotic, Carol Baskin and Doc Antle. The first episode introduces the viewer to the eccentric cast of characters, and every time you think you have seen the wildest character, the show reveals an even stranger person, a skillful editing technique that keeps the viewer interested. I ended up binging the entire show because I couldn’t wait to see which ridiculous person they would introduce next.
Joe Exotic is portrayed almost as the tragic hero of the show. He is a gay polygamist who loves guns and country music and even ran for president in 2016. The show then introduces you to Carol Baskin, Joe Exotic’s nemesis. She has been accused by many people, especially Joe, of killing her husband and feeding him to her tigers. The episode skillfully reveals their dynamic a relationship fueled by rivalry and hatred. The director integrates clips from Joe Exotic’s internet TV show, where he threatens to kill Carol Baskin and shoots Baskin-like mannequins, with interview clips from the two themselves and other people knowledgeable of the rivalry.
When you really think about it, it’s pretty scary that he is threatening to kill her, yet the show portrays their relationship in a comical manner. Their actions and personalities are so outrageous that it is almost impossible not to laugh, and the show only fuels that narrative with the editing. They often include clips from Joe Exotic’s country music songs: one, in particular, is about Carol killing her husband, and the music video features a Carol look-alike feeding hunks of meat to a tiger in a cage. The video is so outlandish and silly that you almost forget the twisted nature of the whole situation.
Next, the show introduces us to Doc Antle, a supposed doctor of mystical sciences. He is also a polygamist because for some reason tigers and polygamy go together. Doc Antle runs a cult operation where he recruits young women to work in his zoo, pays them $100 a week and then ultimately bribes them into becoming one of his wives. The show paints him, along with Carol Baskin, to be the villain of the show. In order to reveal his full arrogance, the filmmakers included clips of him directing them on how to film, telling his wives what to do, and provocative photos taken by him with his wives and the tigers.
Eric Goode did a fantastic job of producing an entertaining and colorful narrative about some of the strangest people in the world. One of the ways that he did this was through the way he shot the interviews. The people were not just sitting on chairs in front of blank walls, rather they were shown in really strange places. For example, Joe’s now ex-husband did his entire interview shirtless to reveal a multitude of tattoos, including one that said, “Privately owned by Joe Exotic.” Another interviewee did his interview while sitting in a bath. These subtle details are what makes the show so entertaining; it’s not just another boring documentary, but rather a comical view into some really strange people’s lives. While I still don’t understand why Joe Exotic was portrayed as the hero (he seems like a pretty terrible person), the show did a great job introducing us to these people in an incredibly captivating way.
However, the show, which was supposed to be about privately owned exotic cats, ended up not being about tigers at all. It was incredibly jarring how terribly the animals were treated. They were kept in small cages underfed and the cubs were taken from their mothers only to be handled super aggressively for their entire infancy. Carol Baskin claimed to own an animal rescue rather than a zoo, but that clearly wasn’t the case at all. The operation she ran was just as bad as the other ones when it came to the mistreatment of animals.
The problem with the documentary is that it rarely acknowledges how terribly the animals are treated. Instead, it makes a spectacle of their owners. I was disappointed in the documentary because it could have had the power to do real change. It even could have put these places out of business, but instead, it just gave them publicity. They never interviewed someone who owned a real sanctuary or an expert in animal captivity, and because of that the viewer never really got a full explanation of the atrocities that were occurring.
We have become so fascinated as a society by the people in the documentary that we have managed to disregard the horrors that these animals have to live with. If anything, the documentary is promoting the zoos rather than condemning them. While I was entertained by the show, and the filmmaking was great for what it was, I was ultimately disappointed. There was a message there that was missed by the director. They had the opportunity to first captivate the audience and then expose this brutal industry, but instead they focused solely on creating entertainment.
“Tiger King” has taken the story and told it their way, leaving little room for other filmmakers or journalists to bring to light the abuse of animals that is going on in these zoos.