Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is a seven episode respite from the state of the nation, and its therapeutic value lies precisely in its outlandishness. The true crime docuseries spotlights the rise and fall of Joe Exotic: a gay, gun-owning, mulleted, polygamist, former presidential candidate and fulltime owner of Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. Staffed largely by felons, the park, dubbed the G.W. Zoo, at one time housed over 200 tigers, lions, pumas, ligers and tigons on a 16-acre plot south of Oklahoma City. Today, the G.W. Zoo is no longer owned by Exotic — he’s caged in the Grady County Jail, months deep into a sentence of 22 years for hiring a hitman to assassinate Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist, killing five tigers and violating several wildlife regulations.
Under normal circumstances, Tiger King is a mesmerizing portrait of America’s sprawling big cat trade with a cartoon plot that’s equal parts disturbing and spellbinding. In today’s troubling times, Tiger King is self care. When the world is crumbling, what else is there to do but turn to a story so distracting, so unbelievable it simply has to be true?
You can credit the saga’s quirky cast of characters for sucking in viewers with ferocity. There’s Baskin, the flower crown wearing founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, a Tampa sanctuary for “abused and abandoned” big cats. Much of her storyline rests upon the plight of her ex-husband Jack “Don” Lewis, who went missing in 1997 the day before he intended to file for divorce. With what they believe to be cogent evidence, Lewis’ friends and family — and Baskin’s enemies, namely Exotic — construct the case for Baskin’s guilt, suspecting that Baskin ran the millionaire through a meat grinder and fed his remains to tigers. Another theory runs that his allegedly gold-digging ex-wife unloaded his body in a septic tank.
Competing with Baskin for the title of Exotic’s archnemesis is Jeff Lowe, a beneficiary of Exotic’s big cat trade who eventually cooperates with the FBI to unseat his rival. It’s not Baskin, but Lowe (best remembered for throwing Las Vegas cub petting parties and supplying cats for Evel Knievel and Prince) who ultimately topples Exotic’s kingdom and crowns himself the zoo’s new CEO. Former employees hint that, like Exotic, Lowe is destined for prison and entwined in his own criminal web.
If not for its cast of characters and dark twists, watch Tiger King for pre-pandemic nostalgia. Even now, as confirmed Oklahoma COVID-19 cases near 1,500, the G.W. Zoo won’t close. Or consider the series a period piece: while COVID-19 content has leaked into cable commercials and Instagram captions, the only mention of a doctor in Tiger King is Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc'' Kevin Antle, a 60-year-old exotic animal collector with a degree in natural sciences from the Chinese Science Foundation. Antle, who often ambles through paved streets atop an elephant, owns The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, another big cat tourist trap. Oh, and he’s a sex cult leader with an unumbered collection of wives.
Baskin’s many attempts to dethrone Exotic — dispensing thousands of anti-cat trade emails, pursuing a trademark infringement lawsuit, enlisting the FBI — propel him into paranoia and motivate him to seek revenge. For most of the docuseries, he seemingly splits his life in three hobbies: governing the G.W. Zoo with an iron fist, supplying the starpower for his online broadcast JoeExoticTV and cursing out Baskin, often very publicly. In later episodes, the latter behavior eclipses both baseline animal care and his commitment to primetime performance. In one scene, he’s filmed firing bullets at a dummy Baskin. In another, Exotic and associates recall, after locating Baskin’s route via Google Maps, how they orchestrated a plan to snipe her mid bike ride. His bloated ego and failed bid for president also distract him from basic business maintenance.
Traders level the label “animal rights people” like a slur. It’s “Carole Baskin and the animal rights people” who are the bona fide abusers, the hazards to the animal world, the uptight and the uncool. Here, the series succeeds in unpacking Exotic’s complicated victim mentality. It’s the big cat traders — D.I.Y. Joe, freewheeling Lowe, upscale Antle — versus “animal rights people,” and the traders can’t seem to catch a break. Still, the series manages to paint a balanced portrait of Exotic, highlighting his suicide attempt after coming out, financial troubles and animal activist roots, without absolving the convict of his abominable animal abuse.
But Tiger King could have been so much more. In a March 24 interview with The Wrap, Baskin called the series “salacious and sensational,” alleging that producers promised its social impact would be akin to Blackfish, a 2013 documentary illuminating abusive practices at SeaWorld. In some ways, Baskin is right. Tiger King is certainly no Blackfish; while early episodes unveil the grim plight of captive tigers, the series ultimately spends more time spotlighting Lewis’ disappearance and Exotic’s atypical relationships.
Producers would, admittedly, be remiss to exclude these plotlines. But the series could have elicited sympathy for Travis Maldonado, Exotic’s fourth husband who, according to filmmakers, accidentally shot himself in the throes of a meth addiction, while simultaneously delving deeper into America’s illegal wildlife trade. It could have aired Exotic, Baskin and Lowe’s big personalities while also examining the intricacies of the buying and selling of big cats, which producers leave largely unexplored. It could have left untouched the parts about polygamy and Antle and Exotic’s reality T.V. dreams while, at the same time, amplifying the perspectives of well-respected big cat sanctuaries.
That’s not to say producers sidestepped over Exotic and others’ explicit abuse; they film traders blasting lions with water and somber voiceovers indicate Antle routinely euthanized his cats. Perhaps, though, the show was never meant to center animal abuse.
Take it from its name: Tiger King spotlights Exotic’s wild persona while Blackfish, true to its title, stars orcas. But for a show broadcast on the world’s most powerful streaming service, Tiger King is a missed opportunity to elicit a global, anti-tiger trade movement, or, at the very least, a global sentiment.
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