Quarantine Cinema TV review: Tiger King

You’ve seen the memes all over social media. Does Netflix’ new series Tiger King pay off on its promise of “murder, mayhem, and madness”? In spades, and probably more than some viewers will like or will be willing to experience. Tiger King will suck coronavirus-quarantined viewers into a bizarre world of big-cat breeding, polygamy, cult-like behavior, and a blood feud that threatens to put more than one of the main players behind bars.

The trailer is NSFW, and also has a mild spoiler, but that hardly matters in this bizarre seven-episode madhouse. “They’re all crazy,” says one person, and that’s perhaps one of the few understatements in this series:

It’s not just tough to figure out for whom the audience should root for most. The trick is in realizing that there’s no one for whom the audience should root. It starts off by focusing on the self-proclaimed Tiger King, “Joe Exotic,” who becomes known by a variety of different legal names by the end of the series. However, his story gets stranger as we go along, and his manipulative, megalomaniacal streak becomes more apparent. Joe Exotic is a fascinating but ultimately repulsive figure, although it’s tough not to get sucked in by his charm at first — as a number of others in this documentary can attest.

Carole Baskin, Joe Exotic’s main nemesis, is no protagonist either. At first Baskin appears to be a figure of reason and kindness, but she has a dark past that might threaten to become a darker present and near future. Her older and wealthy husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances nearly a quarter-century ago, and the series has renewed interest in her as a suspect. The Florida sheriff who inherited the cold case has asked for new leads, and he’s getting a deluge of them now:

The hero isn’t Doc Antle, another big-cat breeder and exhibitor, whose personal life and professional practices also get scrutinized. Antle has assumed a quasi-polygamous lifestyle that borders on a cult (as did Joe Exotic for a while), and there are questions being raised about what happens to Antle’s cats when they stop being cute and cuddly. Neither is it Joe Exotic’s former business partner Jeff Lowe, who took over the zoo in a murky business deal but might have had more to do with Joe’s nefarious activities than he lets on.

The only people who come across as sympathetic — and sometimes just flat-out pathetic — are the people who come to work for the main players. Joe Exotic had a knack for finding broken people to exploit, and Antle and Baskin seem to have that same talent at times. None of them pay much or at all in some cases, and Joe Exotic’s staff had to become experts at scavenging to eat. Literally.

All of this makes for a series that fascinates, repulses, and becomes totally absorbing all at the same time. The repulsion factor is strong; my wife absolutely refused to watch past the second episode, which meant I had to wait for her to go to bed to continue watching it. At some points, viewers might ask themselves whether they’re contributing to the exploitation by watching this train wreck unfold, but for the most part it has already unfolded anyway.

Or so I tell myself, anyway.

Frankly, I’m not even sure my normal Hot Air scale for films/TV already on home theater platforms applies, but we’ll give it a go anyway. Tiger King gets a 4 on the slightly modified scale:

  • 4 – Buy a Netflix subscription and a straitjacket
  • 3 – Worth a rental price and some Xanax
  • 2 – Sit in with your social-distancing partner who’s addicted to it and bring your own booze
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

I’ll warn you that a fairly significant number of people would rate it as a 1 on this scale, and they’re not altogether wrong. The sheer weirdness and the scale of exploitation demonstrated can be too much for people, and one moment in which a suicide is all-but-captured on surveillance video (just off-camera, fortunately) will have more throwing in the towel at that point.

By the way, for those who have already made it through all seven episodes, it looks like a new, eighth episode is on its way some time this week. Best guess: Netflix finds a way to keep extending this series, for better and worse.