From the outset, Tiger King makes it clear that this Netflix documentary series isn’t about people like you and me. “Animal people are nuts, man,” a talking head warns us in the first minute of this seven-part, five-hours-plus recounting of the sad story of Joe Exotic. “And I might be one of them people! They’re all half out-there, man. They’re crazy.” We don’t doubt it for an instance: The interviewee — John Reinke, a manager at Exotic’s once-notorious Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park — sports a Fu Manchu mustache and sits on a couch with a tiger-print blanket draped across it, while a massive tiger pelt hangs on the wall behind him, right next to a mounted rhino head. The camera’s pulled back just far enough so that we can take in the whole vulgar tableau. Look how tacky this world is, the documentary seems to be telling us. Look how weird these people are.
Nothing gets any less weird over the course of Tiger King, which is salaciously subtitled Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Highly binge-able and filled with twists, the series traces not just Exotic’s rise and fall but also several people in his orbit, each of whom is eccentric in his or her own way. This is a world of mullets, meth, arson, accidental deaths, missing persons, domestic abuse, AK-47s, polygamous marriages, a possible cult, conmen, hit men, dudes with ridiculous ponytails, vanity presidential campaigns, reality stardom and some of the most atrocious fashion sense you’ve ever seen. Tiger King is all so tawdry and junk-food addictive that you can’t help but love it. Except, maybe you can.
Perhaps you’re already familiar with Joe Exotic, the now 57-year-old former proprietor of Oklahoma’s very own Greater Wynnewood Park. Born Joe Schreibvogel, he devoted most of his adult life to collecting and caring for big cats. (He also fancied himself a singer, producing some insipid country-pop accompanied by equally abysmal music videos.) But as his park — and his traveling road show that hit Midwestern malls — became more popular, Exotic attracted the interest of Carole Baskin, an animal activist from Florida who runs Big Cat Rescue, an organization devoted to ending the abuse of lions and tigers. Baskin felt that Exotic’s big-cat sanctuary was doing more harm than good, exploiting the animals rather than giving them the best possible home. Soon, the two went to war through lawsuits and online sniping, with Exotic eventually filming videos where he threatened to kill her. It kept escalating until 2018, when he was arrested on suspicion that he had orchestrated a murder-for-hire plot against Baskin.
Tiger King explores the sordid backstory of how that plot came to be, and the documentary is helped immensely by the fact that directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin have been on this project for five years, not just spending ample time with both Exotic and Baskin but also individuals like Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, another larger-than-life character who runs his own exotic zoo in South Carolina. (He also apparently runs a harem. Don’t ask.) Just about everywhere we go in Tiger King, Goode and Chaiklin’s cameras find bizarre individuals. Animal people are nuts, man.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Goode talked about this menagerie of eccentrics he unearthed. “The tiger people, the reptile people, they all have sort of unique subcultures. Kind of like Best in Show,” he said. “[But] what we started understanding in the big cat world is [the owners] have a unique commonality between them, which is, ‘Look at me’… [They want] the status of having a tiger and the attention that gets them.”
No surprise, then, that people like this make for captivating television — they’re shameless, they have no filter and they’ll just talk and talk and talk. For some viewers, I imagine Tiger King will hit the same pleasure zone as trashy reality TV, which indulges our craving to watch garbage people do garbage things. I understand that urge, but I also found myself feeling conflicted about devoting so much time to deeply troubled people who flail around in their miseries while making each other’s lives hell. You could argue that Tiger King is meant to shine a light on the way that endangered animals are often imperiled by the people most obsessed with them. But by and large, I think this docuseries is more interested in letting us savor its characters’ worst, weirdest tendencies. It wants us to enjoy mocking some freaks.
Class is a subject we don’t talk about much in American popular entertainment. Yes, there’s a groundswell of recent movies and television shows about the haves and have-nots, but those tend to position the audience on the side of the have-nots, watching in horror or anger as the rich behave monstrously. By comparison, a program like Tiger King wants to reassure us that we’re smarter, cooler, better than the people we’ll meet in this documentary. We encounter addicts and narcissists and potential murderers, but that’s also true of Succession. The difference is that there’s a snide, punching-down quality to Tiger King that flatters the viewer’s cultural superiority.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they show more restraint than you might expect, letting Exotic and others hang themselves with their own words and deeds. (Goode is a longtime conservationist, and Chaiklin is a veteran of politically minded documentaries — they’ve got impressive bona fides.) But they nonetheless resort to cheap documentary tricks to elicit certain responses from the audience. If someone says something dumb on camera, the directors don’t immediately cut, instead letting their subject dangle awkwardly in order to enhance his or her sense of foolishness. When Baskin and her husband are wearing goofy tiger hats and silly grins, they’re filmed in slow-motion as they lean in to kiss one another, which naturally makes them look like inhuman, maniacal weirdos. We will learn tragic things about several of Tiger King’s central subjects — and, to be fair, the docuseries is sincere in revealing the emotional wounds that they’ve been carrying around since childhood — but the filmmakers can’t help but gawk and then encourage us to be complicit in their gawking.
What the documentary never entirely comes out and says is that it’s very much a portrait of a certain kind of red-state, white-trash existence. Both of those adjectives are pejorative, I realize, but that judgmental tone is precisely how Tiger King couches its main characters. To some extent, the filmmakers can only work with what they’ve been given, and there’s no question that Exotic and his cohorts’ look and manner is the sort that gets ridiculed in popular culture. We’ve been conditioned to think of guys like Exotic as dumb hicks, and with his Southern accent, unsophisticated ideas and unfashionable hair, he’s a walking cliché of a MAGA man. Tiger King uses its lengthy running time to add some nuance to Exotic, who’s gay and almost poignantly needy, but too often, we’re expected to behave similarly to Bill Hader’s impression of Dateline’s Keith Morrison, hungrily eating up every tabloid twist, giddily watching the simpletons crash into one another as they do all sorts of despicable things.
Hollywood isn’t great with depictions of the underclass — the condescension is usually rampant, albeit revealing. My colleague Magdalene Taylor recently hit upon this while praising David Spade’s critically derided hick comedy Joe Dirt. “The explicit parallel of class and taste that the film presents is almost refreshing,” she writes. “It’s a false parallel, of course, but if Joe Dirt indicates anything, it’s that this correlation exists in most people’s minds. … [The movie] acknowledges that class is ultimately the true north on many people’s moral compass, though they may not admit it.”
There are exceptions. In Errol Morris’ terrific and unsettling Tabloid, he looked at a sleazy real-life kidnapping case, although his real subject was investigating our fascination with cases like that. And the 1995 Nicole Kidman drama To Die For anticipated modern America’s addiction to attention — and precisely how it would adversely affect the poor and less-educated in a time of expanding media options.
Unfortunately, Tiger King is more like I, Tonya, which spends a little too much time knocking its low-information characters and then condemns society (i.e., the audience) for finding the whole thing entertaining. (Hey, you made the movie, not us.) In Tiger King, this hypercritical moment comes during a series of interviews with an Oklahoma City newscaster, who explains that her station kept covering Exotic’s murder-for-hire story — including having him on-air live from prison — because he’s like a human train wreck that you can’t stop watching. Are we who binge Tiger King over the weekend really any better? Isn’t that the entire point of this docuseries? If we’re not here for the human train wreck, then why bother?
All of this might suggest that I feel bad for Exotic, Baskin and the rest of Tiger King’s motley crew — or that I don’t think the series gives them a fair shake. That’s not the case at all. While I do have sympathy for some of these wretched souls, it’s pretty clear that their unchecked narcissism, limited smarts and voluminous greed warped them. (And that’s to say nothing of the supporting lowlifes who might be straight-up evil.) Another talking head early in Tiger King declares, “Big-cat people are back-stabbing pieces of shit,” which based on the evidence here sounds about right.
But while I breezed through this series, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to get out of it beyond craning my neck to watch the pileup. Near the end of Tiger King — once all the shocks, revelations and awful new tattoos are unveiled — the series pivots to a more serious tone, suggesting that the real victims were the animals themselves, who suffered because of these human beings’ self-absorption. “These operations, effectively roadside zoos in America, do not really have any redeeming educational or conservation benefits,” Goode said in that same Vanity Fair interview, later adding, “The real takeaway should be to give your money to conservation programs around the world that are really working hard to save tigers in their range countries and not give your money to sanctuaries, which are really, effectively just caging tigers and cats.”
That’s a nice thought, but anybody who watches Tiger King probably won’t dwell on it. Goode and Chaiklin’s documentary is a story about the dangers of ego run amok — of people who did everything in their power to hold onto their inflated view of themselves. But it’s a show perfectly calibrated to do the same thing for us. Great movies and TV shows question our assumptions or at least ask us to see ourselves in the flawed people on screen. Tiger King just wants us to laugh at the poor, dumb animals — and I’m not talking about the big cats.