Directors: Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin
Genre: Documentary Series
Streaming On: Netflix
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness opens with the subject of the seven-episode documentary series speaking from prison. Joe Exotic, former zoo-owner, is now in a cage. Charged with an assassination plot. His voice crackles over the jail telephone. He's not happy. The filmmakers have laid out their cards: You already know how it ends, will you still watch the story?
Watch we will, obsessively and compulsively – and not just because we have nothing better to do during a global lockdown. We watch because Tiger King looks too absurd to be true. It taps into our deepest voyeuristic desires. We dive head-last into the world of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, a 55-year-old flamboyant and gun-toting gay man who drives a bunch of eccentric, depraved and deliciously entertaining players at the center of the secret capitalist ecosystem of American big-cat collectors. His personality – a complex cocktail of conservative Southwest angst and compensatory bumpkin colour – is complemented by the outcasts he hires, all of whom seem to be missing limbs and teeth and self-worth, and appear straight out of a segment of The Jerry Springer Show. The series captures Joe's bitter feud with animal rights activist and sanctuary owner Carole Baskin, who accuses Joe of exploiting the tamed beasts of his Oklahoma park. She hates that he makes money off his cub-petting program; he hates her for hating him. The contrast is played up: Rustic Joe v/s Royal Carole, the raw passion of G.W. Zoo v/s the papery pragmatism of Big Cat Rescue.
Against better judgment, the audience is compelled to take sides. This makes for morbidly addictive reality-show-style drama: Joe goes after Carole like a rabid internet troll, sparing no effort to slander her mission in the most perverse ways possible. It helps that he's also an overconfident country singer with sincere music videos that look like parodies of sincere music videos. By the third episode, it's clear that nobody involved is a hero: Carole, too, has the kind of dark past that makes Joe and his gang of outcasts look like clumsy vigilantes in comparison. Then there are the "supporting characters": A scamming playboy entrepreneur, a strip-club owner, a polyamorous Rajneeshi trainer of animals for Hollywood movies, a drug lord turned conservationist, Joe's young husbands, Joe's video crew, a tattooed hitman…all of them prime creatures of their own universe. Tiger King is about a nutty king and his kingdom and its enemies and its survivors – it's about everyone and everything but the tiger.
And perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Tiger King is this narrative deceit. Most wildlife-conservation documentaries are overtly humanitarian in their tone to spotlight a species that can't speak for itself. There's always the good underdog (philanthropists, PETA, patrol officers) to offset the bad wolves (poachers, big-game hunters, greedy millionaires). But Tiger King is overtly human – full of good villains and bad villains and sad villains – in its tone to reflect the secondary status of a species in modern civilization. By the time we realize that the tigers have been neglected – both cinematically and literally – amidst the bickering and bargaining of its petty humans, it's too late. That's the thing about stories of endangered species: It's supposed to feel too late.
As a result, every episode is meticulously crafted to divert our attention: If one episode empathizes with Joe Exotic and analyzes his attention-seeking psychology, the next sympathizes with the partners at the receiving end of his sociopathic ways. If one paints him as a loud victim, the next turns him into an unreliable fraudster. At some point, I even start to look at Joe as a lost child with a territorial sense of pride. At another, I wonder if he's just an egoistic pawn in a game of kings and queens. This unerring investment in his story, in the people around him, is entirely by design. In some sense, the series uses 'method storytelling' to make a resounding statement about man's opportunistic relationship with the wild. Every frame is so ripe with sensational plots and salacious twists that the tigers are meant to become a tragic footnote at the corner of the frames. They become a cautionary device of powerplay rather than a majestic picture of power at play. The setups keep changing, the politics turn lethal, studios catch fire, people perish…but the cats can only look on.
By deliberately seducing the viewer with an all-pervasive portrait of human nature, Tiger King proves that there's no bigger oxymoron in the English language than "human nature". And it exposes the discerning viewer in the same light as the show's characters – as humans too invested in the language of their own breed to understand the silence of nature. The very fact that we can't take our eyes off Joe Exotic despite him being in the vicinity of exotic animals reveals more about the dwindling tiger population than the humans breeding them. This is also the reason Tiger King opens with the closing moments of Joe's fate – to preemptively suggest that the true-crime genre of this story is not its most significant element, and that our focus should lie elsewhere. But we fail to do so, because the series counts on us failing to do so.
Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that Tiger King is currently the most popular series in the world right now. It is effectively being watched by humans trapped at home by a pandemic directly caused by humans abusing nature. After all, the Wuhan wet markets were notorious for the trading of wildlife. Is there a better metaphor for today's times?