This review discusses the content of all seven episodes of Netflix’s Tiger King.
Some documentary series start out as a gentle stream, trickling around rocks and through passageways, and eventually pick up speed. Not Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. It’s an immediate flash flood, a roaring river that tears through everything in its path, a deluge of oddball people, outlandish events, and outright unhinged behavior—guns firing, an arm torn off, a reality show up in flames, an accidental suicide caught on tape—that doesn’t stop for the majority of its seven-episode run.
It’s a hell of a ride, brilliantly edited to introduce and settle in with a character before it blindsides us, introducing new information that completely changes the way we see that person. With some characters, that happens several times. Yet this form also leaves actual caged tigers and abuse of animals as a C-story afterthought at best, and is powered by a strong undercurrent of misogyny.
There’s been no shortage of true-crime and true-life documentary series over the last five years, but there has been a shortage of ones that do a truly outstanding job with their material.
The most recent one I watched, HBO’s McMillions, has an incredibly strong start: a low-stakes but high-intrigue story about the McDonald’s Monopoly game being fixed for years. Its lead character Doug Mathews, an FBI agent who narrates with bombastic aplomb, like he’s trying to talk you in to buying the coolest thing ever at his garage sale. But besides interviews with some of the key players, it has no footage, and has to rely on weak recreations. It quickly loses its way amid a web of people, and falls apart as a compelling story.
Netflix’s Tiger King works where so many other documentary series fail because it has access to a bounty of footage, shot by professionals and amateurs and security cameras, and access to a Crayola factory of colorful characters.
Joe Exotic himself seems like the work of fiction: a tattooed, pierced, gay polygamist with a mullet and an explosive combination of narcissism, paranoia, and ego who runs a sketchy zoo that has become more about him than the animals.
Even the reality show producer who followed Joe Exotic for years, Rick Kirkham, with his pack of cigarettes, cup of coffee, black Stetson hat, and grizzled incredulousness could power his own documentary—and he actually did, starring in TV Junkie, which is about his battle with addiction.
Tiger King is just awash in incredible footage. There’s everything that was public, from Joe’s music videos (it’s not actually him singing) to the footage from his Internet show, like the clip of him shooting a dummy stand-in for his mortal enemy Carole Baskin.
That’s the other thing: No one being filmed seems particularly concerned about consequences of what they’re saying or doing, especially Joe. People hurl accusations as easily as they narrate the crazy shit they saw. No one is cautious, though perhaps they should have been.
Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin have produced the year’s most enchanting story, but also an ethically dubious work of nonfiction.
Their editing is clever, but is it trustworthy? One person interviewed on camera is also extensively shown talking to the director, who’s wearing a hidden camera and mic. Why? We’re never told. But it’s what the editing so obviously does to Carole Baskin in episode three that pulled me out of the rush of juicy details and step back to think about what exactly the show and its producers were trying to accomplish.
The directors’ worst choice is to spend an entire episode setting up Carole Baskin as a villain and suggesting she’s a murderer.
This isn’t their idea, of course; Joe regularly accuses her of murdering her ex-husband, Don Lewis, who disappeared. But the editing is ruthless.
They show a stock image of a massive, human-sized meat grinder even as Carole describes the one she owned as small. They even title the episode “The Secret” even though there’s no secret at all here; Carole readily discusses her ex-husband’s disappearance and addresses all of Joe’s accusations. (Carole has since responded to Tiger King in detail.)
While actual law enforcement has made no arrests, and none of the people interviewed have any actual evidence that she did this, they build a case against her by piling on the speculation, and assembling it in a compelling way.
Toward the end of episode three, Goode, off-camera, follows up to something Don Lewis’s ex-wife says by asking, “because you’re afraid of Carole Baskin?” She says, “Oh yes I am. I am.” Goode and Chaiklin cut to B-roll they shot of Carol looking into the camera, and slow the footage down, making her look like a sneering villain. Then they cut directly to their footage of Joe Exotic looking into the camera, creating the visual impression that they are equals.
It’s highly effective. Kim Karashian West—who’s the subject of an upcoming documentary about her tireless efforts to expose the justice system’s failings and false imprisonment—was apparently so taken by this that she decided trial by Twitter would be sufficient for Carole, tweeting, “Do you think Carol killed him?”
The show begs us to do that kind of speculation. After all, Carole’s ex-husband’s disappearance is the only actual mystery in Tiger King; everything else is pretty clear-cut. Joe is constantly talking about killing Carole in front of the series’ cameras and on his own social media, and prosecutors have recordings of him that are pretty damning. Maybe he was never serious about hiring a hitman to murder Carole, as is suggested, but did you see the way Carole rides her bike? And wears flowers on her head! What a psychopath!
So yes, the woman who’s actually trying to save tigers gets a brutal edit, far more than other characters, including Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the man who it’s briefly suggested keeps underpaid women around for sex and work at his Myrtle Beach Safari.
The show gives more on-screen minutes to Doc attempting to produce and direct his own Tiger King segments—it’s incredible to watch him turn on and off, thinking that the filmmakers will only use the good parts and cut the rest, which they did not—than it does to interrogating his operation or relationships.
The odious treatment of women—by men in the show, and by Tiger King itself—is tough to watch. Toward the end of the series, Jeff Lowe sits next to his pregnant wife, Lauren, and says that, after she gives birth, “then we get Lauren back in the gym.”
She ignores that brutal comment and says to him, playfully, “Ready?”, as in, ready for the baby. He says, “Ready for a nanny.” Turning to he camera, he says, “I said, You can get a nanny as long as I get to pick her. If you’re going to bring in one, why bring in one that’s not enjoyable to look at?”
He holds up his phone and then shows pictures of nannies on a computer, referring to them with less humanity than he shows toward the animals. Perhaps the directors expected his own words and behavior to indict him for this, and kept showing more and more of this, but like so many other moments in Tiger King, it just kind of lays there: a trigger for shock and anger, perhaps, but nothing else.
“Not a single animal benefitted from this war. Not a single one,” says Saff in the final episode. Saff is the former employee whose arm was nearly torn off by a tiger and insisted that doctors just amputate it instead of facing years of reconstructive surgery, just to go back to work within days. (In another misstep by the filmmakers, Saff was misgendered by the show.)
To Saff’s closing statement, I’d add that not a single animal benefits from a Netflix series that frames this as a war between two people. Tiger King builds its conflict on false equivalency, as if Carole and Joe are both just crazy nuts and dismissible.
Is Carole Baskin keeping tigers in cages at Big Cat Rescue the same thing as Joe keeping tigers in cages at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park? The series lets Joe make that claim but spends practically no time focused on the animals’ actual welfare, or asking those questions.
A series focused entirely on animal cruelty and the ethics of keeping animals in cages would not have been as successful as Tiger King has been. It’d be a tough sell, especially to a country full of people who have pets and would love to have our pictures taken with a fuzzy little tiger OMG OMG LOOK AT ITS FACE. I was repeatedly entranced with both the insanity of the story and the cuteness of the animals, especially those cubs.
But it’s still baffling how even the subject animal cruelty is almost entirely avoided, never mind the specifics. How Joe and Doc treat animals is certainly not explored with any depth, even though it’s Carole Baskin’s entire motivation to shut places like theirs down, whether through legislation or ignominy.
The fact that alligators burned or boiled to death when Joe’s studio was set ablaze is an afterthought in the intrigue of who really burned it down: the reality show producer? Joe? Carole? A Netflix executive?
The directors witnessed much more than they showed us. Co-director Rebecca Chaiklin told the L.A. Times that, at Joe Exotic’s place:
“Most of the tigers we were around were subjected to abject cruelty. We saw babies being torn from their mothers and screaming. They’d get sick from being handled so much and get ringworm and mange. It was disturbing. Are they cute? Yes. Were there temptations to cuddle or touch? Yes. But it was very clear that it was not something positive.”
That was not very clear from her show, however. I recall seeing a newborn tiger being removed, rather ungracefully, from its mother, who was having another cub, but I know nothing about tigers. Is that “abject cruelty”? Is that normal practice?
Eh, Tiger King has no time for that, because it has to blindside us with the fact that someone who’s been interviewed is a former drug lord who claims to be the basis for Scarface‘s Tony Montana.
There’s a lot that gets lost as Chaiklin and Goode constantly drop the ball, but it’s easy to miss that since they give it a swift kick over to the next wild piece of information. There’s so much here, too, that’s worthy of exploration, even beyond the surface issues of animal welfare: class, control, charisma.
It actually seems that Goode himself was not thrilled about the show’s focus. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he said the focus on people “did trump the issue of the ethic-acy of keeping these animals in captivity, and especially the way these people were using these animals—exploiting them for profit. … Personally, I had originally set out to do a slightly different story.”
Goode later told the magazine, in a written statement:
“I went into this to explore a different side of the animal world in terms of wild animals in captivity. After spending years with these subjects the project moved in a different direction. Netflix is very adept at making binge-worthy television and with these larger-than-life subjects that was pretty easy to do. However, my goal is and has always been the same, which is to raise awareness and help save the species.”
Tiger King is another unscripted hit for Netflix, at least measured in terms of its reach into pop culture, where it’s been a welcome distraction. The show has an irresistible pull, with its eccentric cast and escalating series of events. It’s too bad it didn’t do more with the story besides just hacking it up and throwing bloody chunks at ravenous Netflix viewers.