The new true crime documentary sensation shares many of the flaws of its own subject, writes Sam Brooks.
Joe Exotic, the man at the centre of Netflix’s new documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, is a star. There’s an unnerving charisma that burns through the tattooed eyeliner, the sickly bleached hair and the boot-leather tan skin. It’s the kind of charisma that allowed him to transform himself from Kansas-born Joe Schreibvogel into Joe Exotic, Tiger King. He’s the man who self-funded his own country album (23 songs, 16 videos), ran for both United States president and governor of Oklahoma, and most crucially to this story, ran a 16-acre park that served as a cramped and decrepit home to more than a hundred tigers and scores of other exotic wildlife.
The series follows through on the promise contained in its title – it features plenty of mayhem and madness, and some brushes with murder – and its makers have coralled an entertaining cast of oddballs to retell the stranger-than-fiction story. There’s the tycoon slash animal trainer who is apparently running some sort of harem alongside his own zoo. There’s the FBI informant who is very clearly in it for the attention rather than any real belief in right and wrong. And there are Joe Exotic’s husbands, both doe-eyed, dim and deeply susceptible to Exotic’s questionable charms and the lure of getting to hang out with tigers all day; they’re also susceptible to having their drug addictions fed, in one case leading to tragedy. And perhaps most notably, there’s Carole Baskin, she of the “murder” of the title, who has dedicated much of her life to attempting to close Exotic’s park down.
It’s the incredible breadth of the Tiger King saga that makes it so compelling. Thanks to Exotic’s desire to film his own reality show, and his love for the warm glow of the media spotlight, there are swathes of footage showing everything that went down in his compound and among his complicated network of relationships, both business and personal (let’s just say these people are not practising physical distancing). There’s also a seemingly endless amount of people who are willing to talk about him and his compound, be they his former employees or his rivals. Unfortunately, Tiger King seems more interested in showing us the full sordid picture than exploring any of its subject in depth.
This lack of depth might prompt some to ask what the ultimate point is. While the documentary is a damn fun watch – it’s pretty much the ultimate ‘hit next episode’ show of the moment – it’s unclear if the makers achieved any real insight into their subjects. Tiger King moves very quickly, but not towards a real resolution; the story just stops at the point where the real life action does.
After a while, the documentary’s lack of empathy for even the most tragic of its characters becomes troubling. Many of the interviews feel exploitative, with some subjects filmed seemingly on the verge of blacking out. These especially gross moments are when Tiger King seems the most like pure class voyeurism: “Would you look at these people? Aren’t they weird? Aren’t they sad?”
Remarkably, the documentary also avoids any but the most fleeting discussion of the wellbeing of the big cats (and surely there is a more dignified name for these magnificent animals than ‘big cats’?) that are bought, traded and held in captivity for their entire lives. Even as a portrait of the Tiger King himself, the series remains frustratingly shallow, far more interested in the image being projected than the mind behind it. There’s no greater point being made here, and the series doesn’t dig itself deep enough into its subjects to be worth much discussion beyond “So do you think [redacted] did [redacted]?” (Like I’d rob you of those particular revelations.)
Maybe the point of Tiger King is simply to keep us watching. And when you’re self-isolating with nothing but a series of black mirrors in your lounge, there’s value in escaping into anything. Its value is short-lived, however. You’ll discuss it once with friends, you’ll enjoy the many memes that have sprung out of it, and then you’ll probably never think of it again. But to kill some time in a lockdown – specifically five hours, 41 minutes – you could do worse. In more ways than one, Tiger King is the perfect embodiment of its subject: compelling and occasionally charming, despite all the toxic traits.
You can watch Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness on Netflix now.