While watching Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, I had many thoughts and feelings. Generally, my goal before writing about a show is to organize all those thoughts and feelings into some kind of cohesive argument that illuminates a series in a helpful, unexpected way. But sometimes, coherence eludes me. Some shows are just too bonkers, too messy, too baffling to be shaped into any one thoughtful thesis. This is the problem of Tiger King, a docuseries about a guy named Joe Exotic and his decades-long effort to keep big cats in an unregulated zoo in Oklahoma. Watching it, I couldn’t land on any one single thought.
Plus, like everyone else right now, I’m stuck in my house and can’t have an in-person argument with anyone to figure out how I feel about this. So instead, here are my thoughts on Tiger King, presented as a Socratic dialogue with … myself.
Me: So, is this series … good?
Myself: Tiger King exhibits many of the qualities of “good.” It’s extremely absorbing, first and most importantly. Much of the series is about Joe Exotic (real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage), a uniquely bizarre personality who’s more than enough to carry the show all on his own. But Tiger King also gets into a whole illicit world of exotic animal breeding and selling, and somehow each new figure is more strange and shocking than the last.
Plus, every time you think you’ve gotten a handle on what exactly the crimes are in this true-crime series, Tiger King throws you another curveball. Thought it was going to be about illegal animal breeding? Well it’s also about murder. But not the murder you thought! Well okay, yes, it is about the murder you thought, but it’s also about more murder. All of that seems like plenty for one series, right? Ha ha, there are also cults! And polygamy! And everyone has lions and tigers just lying around their homes, all the time! Tiger King is absolutely “good,” in that I watched all of it as quickly as possible, often with my jaw on the floor.
Me: Let me rephrase. Is Tiger King good in a moral sense? Is it humane? Is it compassionate? Is it an ethical piece of filmmaking? Because come on, you know you cringed while watching this.
Tiger King, for all its extreme watchability, also lives pretty close to that TLC reality-show place. There’s a whiff of class tourism here, not that different from shows like Toddlers and Tiaras or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo — shows that treat their subjects like sideshow acts in a circus, where the circus is poverty. You feel okay watching this?
Myself: No, look, it’s not the same! Shows like Toddlers and Tiaras or My 600-Lb Life do a lot of melodramatic gawping at people’s lives, without ever putting those lives in the context of all the massive, inextricable social and cultural systems that have led them to these places. They’re being treated as objects of entertainment rather than people.
Okay, Tiger King does that, too. There’s very little in here about the lack of regulation that allows these zoos to happen, or about the immense financial disparity in this country that lets wild cat breeding be a meaningful source of income for these people. There’s also very little in here that takes animal cruelty seriously. It’s implicit, but it’s not like there are experts in zoology who show up as talking heads in Tiger King to explain exactly how inhumane all this is.
BUT! Unlike the kids in Toddlers and Tiaras or the blurred-face subjects in Cops, the subjects of Tiger King are consenting, adult criminals. Joseph Maldonado-Passage hired a hit man to kill someone. He willingly participated in having his life filmed, for his own Facebook channel, for a reality show he wanted to make about his life, for this documentary! All the human subjects of Tiger King are consenting adult participants who can speak for themselves. And if the documentary is biased, well … that can happen when you agree to be in a documentary.
Me: There are suggestions they got paid to participate, though. Plus, it’s pretty gross that Tiger King spends so little time thinking about tiger welfare.
Myself: Sure. But also there was that part about how Bhagavan “Doc” Antle is a cult leader who renames all his wives?? That was gross and probably it’s good someone pointed it out!
Me: He says it’s not a cult!
Myself: LOL suuuuuure. In that same interview he goes on to say that although he doesn’t have lots of wives, his son is “a living Tarzan.”
Me: Yeah, you’re right, there’s no way that guy’s on the level.
Myself: Thank you.
Me: But there are other characters in this series who could not fully speak for themselves! Especially Joe’s former husband Travis, who killed himself in a firearm accident. This series doesn’t even come close to treating his life with respect.
Myself: It’s all so tragic. It truly is, and the biggest fault of the docuseries is how little it acknowledges that. But it does illuminate so many other tragedies. The zoo employees who eat off the animal food truck! The way these tiger people exploit labor. How about how Carol Baskin literally gives the new volunteers red shirts — and calls them red shirts, like the disposable characters in Star Trek! — and pays them nothing while they maintain her huge profitable big-cat facility!
Me: If you’re trying to convince me that you enjoyed watching this show because you knew nothing at all about this world and now you feel like there’s a whole criminal subculture that’s become visible, and it is fully bonkers, then okay. That was never a question.
Myself: We have reached a detente.
Me: Do you think Carol Baskin killed her first husband??
Myself: Oh, yes. For sure.