Directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin
Starring Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, Bhagavan Antle
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably obsessing over what’s happening in the news or you’re plugged into social media, poring over reports of self-interested politicians and getting your outrage up.
While remaining vigilant is commendable at a time when being cooped indoors is a necessity, it can put a crimp on enjoying the wealth of streaming options available to you. Suddenly, the humor in goofball comedies like Netflix’s Medical Police seem undercut by horrifying relevance, or the treasure trove of Star Cinema dramas being streamed for free over iWant seem pale next to the many real-life cliffhanger questions of this moment. What you need is an entertainment option that can block out the anxiety-ridden drama playing outside the four walls of your home.
Enter Netflix’s seven-episode documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
Tiger King charts the rise and fall of Joe Exotic, an eccentric zoo owner from Oklahoma whose story is so outlandish, a TV screenwriter would get kicked out of the writers room if he came up with anything as bonkers.
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Born Joseph Schreibvogel in rural Kansas, Joe is a gay, gun-toting, blonde mullet-sporting Libertarian whose affinity for lions, tigers and other big cats leads him to operate an independent petting zoo in Wynnewood for over two decades. On top of that, he is also a wannabe country star who hires a chain-smoking TV reporter named Rick Kirkham to document his verbal and social media brawls with Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist who runs a competing sanctuary out of Florida. Their longterm scrimmage has Joe brought up on federal charges alleging that the zoo entrepreneur and fledgling country singer had a contract hit put out on his nemesis.
That logline is about as straightforward as Tiger King is going to get; how Joe goes from rich owner of a petting zoo to possible felon is as perversely circuitous—there’s even a campaign for Oklahoma governor as a pit stop!—as strange real events will allow. What makes Tiger King so fascinating is its introduction to a world you didn’t even know existed: the shadowy, backstabbing world of big-cat profiteering. Over the course of seven episodes, there is always a pervasive sense that anything can happen. And believe me, it does.
What makes the escapism of Tiger King so potent is the colorful specificity of its characters; the most generic thing about the series, frankly, is its subtitle. Along the way to Joe’s downfall you will meet a fellow zoo tycoon who may be keeping a harem in his South Carolina property; a bandanna-wearing Las Vegas high-roller who may be overstating his assets; a one-armed zoo warden who went back to work barely a week after a tiger bit off her limb; and two of Joe’s husbands, one of whom had his teeth fall out due to his meth addiction and another who accidentally blew his head off. Even Joe’s archrival isn’t as cookie-cutter as she seems: As if her predilection for wearing floral garlands and leopard prints weren’t striking enough, episode three casts Carole Baskin’s hippie persona in doubt as it investigates the unanswered questions surrounding the disappearance of her multimillionaire husband.
Tiger King offers you the guilty pleasure you would ordinarily derive out of watching a car crash—you’re helpless to stop it, and yet you can’t look away either. Scratch that: It’s like watching a car crash into an oil tanker whose explosion then slams it into the side of a school bus. After watching Tiger King, you feel that you’ve been mightily entertained, yet also so deeply polluted that a shower might be in order—which is a good idea anyway, given the times we’re living in.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is currently streaming on Netflix.
Photographs from Netflix