Tiger King review: Insane Netflix series is the first great fictional unifier of the coronavirus era
Everybody in Tiger King, the new Netflix true crime documentary series, seems to have a tooth or two missing. A woman has her arm ripped off on camera, but downplays the accident by saying that she works with a man who has no legs. The legless man knows what you’re thinking, but no, a tiger didn’t bite his limbs off. He lost them in a ziplining accident. Both of them work at a seedy Oklahoma zoo that houses hundreds of ‘big cats’ -- tigers, panthers, lions, etc.
The zoo is run by an eccentric, gun-toting, redneck homosexual who goes by the name of Joe Exotic. He has two husbands, neither of whom, by their own admission, is gay. His rival in the private zoo business is ‘a doctor of mystical science’ who has three wives and calls himself Bhagavan Antle. Joe’s nemesis, on the other hand, was once under the suspicion of murdering her own husband.
Watch the Tiger King trailer here
It’s a mark of how absolutely insane Tiger King is that Joe Exotic’s run for the Presidency of the United States is reduced to less than five minutes of screentime. If somebody were to narrate to you the twists and turns of his life, you wouldn’t believe them, but through some cinematic miracle, a camera crew documented the most incredible adventures Joe had in the last few years.
Tiger King is the first great fictional unifier of the coronavirus age, a series that has seemingly brought the world together as we collectively fight stress, boredom, outrage and paranoia in these difficult times. Ironically, it is about a stratum of society that could be partially blamed for the apocalypse that we currently find ourselves engulfed by -- politically and environmentally.
It is a story of 21st century greed, a form of self-serving obnoxiousness that has no empathy for others. On several occasions, Joe Exotic displays a fragrant disregard for his employees, the animals that he pretends to adore, and anybody who dares stand in his way. What begins as a hilariously insular look inside the politics of private zoos in Red State America turns into something more sinister as the episodes go by. Strange men and women, most of them at the end of their ropes, are introduced. Some make it out alive, others don’t.
Every episode -- there are seven, in all -- ends with a plot twist so shocking that even the filmmaker, Eric Goode, blurts out on one occasion, “Wait, what?” echoing the viewers’ exact sentiment. Of course, it would be rude to reveal any further details about the show here, but Goode and his co-director Rebecca Chaiklin do a splendid job of laying out a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow.
In the first episode, we are given a basic outline of the events that have transpired, a colourful cast of characters is introduced, and the mystery is set up. These are people you don’t ever care for, but the filmmakers find puddles of humanity in this swamp of bitterness and jealousy. Joe Exotic, despite his over-the-top antics, is a pitiable man; the series hints at a tragic childhood. Indeed, most of these people are delinquents and runaways, survivors of abuse, trauma and societal injustice. That they choose to behave in the manner that they do isn’t surprising, but it is sad.
What are we expected to do? How should we react? Mocking them would be too easy, and cruel. Simply gawking at their outlandishness would be pointless. But we can’t afford to overlook the core idea that the filmmakers are trying to convey, that there are no winners in this blazingly stupid story about machismo and malevolence. A sobering title card at the end reveals that there are more tigers in captivity in the US than there are in the wild, anywhere in the world.
Tiger King is the finest Netflix true crime documentary this side of Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator and the phenomenal Wild Wild Country. Call it divine interference or plain coincidence, but each of these three stories is anchored by a man with a God complex, crippled by delusions of grandeur, someone who feeds on the helplessness of the less powerful.