The buzziest show of coronavirus outbreak has been Tiger King on Netflix. Perhaps it’s fitting everyone is stuck at home surrounded by death outside watching a show about people stuck in a zoo surrounded by potential death at the jaws of tigers. But really, people just want to watch some wacky characters.
Tiger King is about the big cat breeding and zoo industry, but it’s really the Joe Exotic show. Joe is a gay man will a mullet living in rural Oklahoma and taking care of over 100 big cats (lions, tigers, and bears—oh my) as part of his zoo. He walks around with a pistol on his hip at all times while barking orders at his motley crew of employees who look like and often speak like Boomhauer from King of the Hill. What starts out as a docuseries examining this shady industry eventually becomes a twisty tale filled with lies, betrayal, and at the very least attempted murder.
Sounds great, right? Tiger King is definitely entertaining. Episode after episode the sordid world becomes more twisted and just went you exclaim that it can’t get any weirder, well, it does. The cast of assorted characters are at times funny and touching, but always character-like. Part of this is simply the process of cutting together hundreds of hours of footage, and part of it is a time-tested process in reality series. You amplify everyone to give us heroes and villains, even if those definitions are constantly shifting. By the end you’ll likely be thoroughly invested in unraveling who really did what and probably not feel very good about anyone involved.
And that’s part of the problem with Tiger King. You don’t need heroes for a show to be either good or moral. The Sopranos, still one of television’s best creations, first showed this over two decades ago. The problem with Tiger King is you may personally feel dirtier after watching it. The show is a masterclass in rubbernecking—similar to reality series like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. You don’t watch such shows because you care about the fate of any of the characters, but because you want to see the next bizarre twist. Only, these are real people. This isn’t Grey’s Anatomy where we can distance ourselves from the tragedies of our voyeurism. At some point we have to admit we’re taking pleasure in the spiraling lives of these very real (if exaggerated through editing) people.
The titular Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic, repeatedly is quoted as saying he wants those coming into his life to help make him famous. From reality shows to runs for political office, Joe seems singularly obsessed. While it’s hard to fully point the finger of exploitation have made quite a bit of money for many (or more money in the case of the Kardashians), there is something to the idea that very few of the truly poor are ever elevated by such shows. Nor does Tiger King really serve as a warning about its con artists. It does try to shoehorn in an environmental message in its closing minutes, but it feels insincere given most of the series’ focus.
There’s entertainment in excess to have here, but you might not feel entirely comfortable with yourself afterward. Sort of like visiting one of these big cat parks. On second thought, maybe there is more here.