This is the first time I’ve ever really reviewed a TV show, but honestly, I’m guessing that many have consumed Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness more like a long movie considering the spare time most people have at the moment. I, like so many before me, was lead down this path by a relentless string of memes – I needed to know who Joe Exotic was, how he had so many husbands, and what exactly Carole Baskin did or did not do. The answers to all of these questions ended up being far more bizarre than I ever could have imagined, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so taken aback by the contents of a documentary before.
In my opinion (as someone who typically reviews fiction), what makes or breaks a documentary is whether the story you want to tell is remotely interesting in the first place. Selection is key, and in Tiger King, it felt like they had a wealth of insane, disturbing, and intriguing incidents to choose from. The series features scenes of people regularly attacked by big cats, and this is in the quiet moments between the bombshells this show drops multiple times per episode. In the first two episodes alone, we are presented with dismemberment, corruption, and possibly murder, and believe me when I say that it only gets odder from there.
The structure of the show begins simply enough, with the information delivered through a straightforward combination of archival footage and talking-head interviews. However, as more names are piled into the mix and more accusations are thrown, you end up so lost in the mayhem that nothing fazes you, to the point where a mulleted man shooting a sex doll in the head just seems like another day at the office. The dissonance between the normality of the presentation and the batshit insanity of the content is what makes Tiger King so special to me – do you need formal experimentation when your chosen subject matter is this unusual?
Possibly more so than Walter White, Don Draper, or Daenerys Targaryen, Joe Exotic is a TV personality defined in Shakespearean terms as a victim of hubris. In his own, aggressively American, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia like way, Joe was on top of the world – he had a successful business based on exploiting symbols of his brash power, and multiple trophy spouses all by far his junior. Throughout the seven episodes of the series, this all blows up in spectacular fashion, foretold a la Romeo and Juliet by a phonecall from Exotic in prison early in the show. Also like Shakespeare’s most popular play, this is a series helmed by two houses: the ‘zoo’ owning Exotic, and the ‘rescue’ owning Baskin. At their core, these two camps are the same, and as their bizarre arms race becomes more and more intense, this only becomes more apparent.
Truly, Tiger King is something of a cultural moment. As a Netflix original, it’s readily available around the globe, and pretty much everyone seems to be tuning in. Its intense level of specificity has made it universally weird, and consequently universally intriguing, in a way that no other short series like this has really achieved. All of a sudden, because of this pandemic, we have half the planet talking about That Bitch Carole Baskin – in the eternal words of Laura Dern, the world is ‘wild at heart and weird on top’, and I don’t think anything reflects that sentiment better than this strange little show.