A true-crime docu on the business of big cats
It’s not every day that a zookeeper goes to prison for a murder-on-hire”. If these words, playing out early in Episode One of Tiger King don’t hook you, then what unfolds over the course of the next few hours, as you obsessively devour seven episodes of ‘murder, mayhem and madness’ — as the show’s tagline aptly puts it — definitely will.
A viral sensation ever since it dropped on Netflix in end-March, Tiger King is a true-crime documentary miniseries that, on the surface, explores the grimy underbelly of the business of big cats — tigers, lions, panthers, et al — but is actually an exploration of the depths that the human mind and intent can plunge to, a messy but compelling portrait of obsession and power gone terribly wrong.
Tiger King, in a way, is the real ‘Stranger Things’. Selling itself on the strength of its increasingly bizarre plot twists, the series is peopled by characters with larger-than-life back-stories, dubious reputations, questionable motivations and a common unpredictable trajectory of speech and action.
In the middle of it all is the contentious hatred between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. Joe, a self-styled Don Juan of sorts, is the flamboyant owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, whose fixation for exotic animals (hence, the self-acquired surname) makes him pet over 200 big cats in his zoo, with Baskin, the force behind Big Cat Rescue, constantly accusing him of abusing the animals and advocating the need for them to be released into the wild. The flipside is that Carole herself cages these animals after ‘rescuing them’ and Tiger King, a fascinating watch of the constant run-ins between the two, also becomes a study of the rather blurred line between loving wild animals and exploiting them.
Genuinely compulsive viewing, nothing is done in half measures in Tiger King. There’s a woman who’s missing a hand, mauled as it were by a big cat, but one who is back at work at Joe’s zoo just days after she walks out of hospital; there’s a man who’s lost both his legs to a zip-lining accident, but who’s willing to risk his life every day by getting up-close with the ferocious animals.
The most compelling character in the mix is, of course, Joe Exotic, variously described in the show as “a misfit of sorts” and a man for whom “the zoo is his stage”. Dressed cowboy-style in knee-high boots and fringe jackets, Joe is a fascinating creature — he marries two men at the same time, shoots anyone who trespasses on his property instead of calling the cops, has his own Internet broadcast and can often be seen singing in tackily
put-together music videos. An even stranger fun fact? Joe twice unsuccessfully ran for public office, first for president of the United States in 2016 as an independent, and then for governor of Oklahoma in 2018 as a Libertarian. His one big obsession in life — besides his exotic animals — is taking down Carole Baskin, and much of the series is focused on the two trading barbs and pulling out all the stops to shut each other down.
Filmed like a thriller, Tiger King benefits from its edgy style of storytelling, with bombs (truth or not, you decide) being dropped on the audience every time you start to think that this world couldn’t get more bizarre. Besides the feud between the two main protagonists, a large part of the series also focuses on the unexplained disappearance of Baskin’s millionaire husband Don Lewis, with Joe leading the world in propagating that she “fed him to the tigers”, a narrative that you wouldn’t actually find too far-fetched once you deep-dive into the world of Tiger King.
It may be a documentary, but Tiger King is very Shakespearean in theme and treatment, examining the repercussions of the demolition derby-style collision of truth and half-truth. The show also benefits from the eccentricities of its side players, the primary among them being Joe Exotic’s mentor in the animal world — a man called ‘Bhagavan’ Doc Antle (his ‘guru’ is an Indian godman) — whose life and times spent with the big cats also provides enough fodder to keep the show’s edgy tone alive.
Part documentary, part reality show, but all compellingly crazy, Tiger King is worth a binge watch, a show with an irresistible pull that scores with its win-at-all-costs approach. Some scenes may be gross — and also grossly over the top — but it’s a wild ride that hits bullseye more often than not.
The downside of Tiger King is the fact that it’s almost wholly dedicated to staging a spectacle without actually delving deeper into the truth. But maybe it’s this kind of insane content that is necessary to help us tide through these insane times.