“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” is the Netflix series that took the world by storm when it was released on March 20. The so-strange-it-can-only-be-true story is perfect fodder for a generation of meme creators and internet-savvy streamers.
Filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin illustrate that the seven-episode docu-series is about much more than big cats by the end of the first episode. “Tiger King” is about ego, money, cults, queer loneliness, a hit and an unsolved disappearance. At its most profound, “Tiger King” is a portrait of a world that’s both completely foreign and an eerily accurate reflection of the United States. It’s strange, hilarious, frustrating and pretty sad.
The main character, Joe Maldonado- Passage — better known as Joe Exotic — is a gay, gun-toting, big cat enthusiast who is equal parts showman and conman. Much of the documentary’s strength lies in Exotic’s odd charm as he boasts about his fame, husbands and cats.
Many documentaries rely heavily on talking-head interviews, which can easily grow stale, but the interviews in “Tiger King” are entertaining character studies in their own right.
The series’ main asset is its wealth of on-location footage from Exotic’s animal park in Oklahoma, and similar parks elsewhere in the country, including Tampa. The filmmakers had seemingly unlimited access to these scattered ecosystems over several years, successfully carving this mountain of information into entertaining television. “Tiger King” frequently jumps between different points in time, a carefully assembled mosaic with a focus on impactful moments and subtle revelations.
The series could spend more time on the animal rights issues at play, but it chooses to use that argument as the backdrop for a human conflict instead: a war of words among animal sanctuary owners. The animals aren’t forgotten by any means, but the fact that their plight doesn’t take center stage is the point. As “Tiger King” shows, the lives of these animals are afterthoughts for Exotic and the other big cat lovers — just props meant to highlight their owners’ uniqueness.
That said, it’s a sign of the series insight and thoughtful construction that, by the end, viewers feel bad for everyone caught in Exotic’s orbit — including Exotic himself. “Tiger King” is not an uplifting narrative to gather around as we sink further into the gloom of isolation, but it’s well worth a watch. It’s a tale of caged things that is, if nothing else, entertaining.
In the weeks following the release of “Tiger King,” it has been hard to avoid. The series has taken over popular meme accounts and news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post. The aftermath of “Tiger King” may be just as entertaining and revealing as the docu-series itself.
Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin, Exotic’s arch-nemesis, is a main character in the series and a person of interest in the disappearance of her former husband, Jack Donald Lewis, a Florida millionaire who vanished in 1997.
A Hillsborough County investigation has reopened due to the renewed interest in the case. Sheriff Chad Chronister requested tips associated with the case March 30 via Twitter.
“Since @Netflix and #Covid19 #quarantine has made #TigerKing all the rage, I figured it was a good time to ask for new leads,” he wrote.
The series ends with Exotic being sentenced to 22 years for falsifying wildlife records, violating the Endangered Species Act by killing five tiger cubs and federal charges for a 2017 murder-for-hire scheme targeting Baskin.
Exotic’s hunt for fame is not over as he is capitalizing on the success of the show by appearing from jail on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and accepting many interviews that come his way.
The past few weeks have been filled with COVID-19 and “Tiger King” news. The most recent news encapsulates it all — Exotic has been transferred from coronavirus isolation to a prison medical center, according to the New York Post.
Exotic also announced he was filing a lawsuit, seeking a combined $94 million from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and he issued a call for a pardon from President Trump on March 19 on his Facebook page.
“This lawsuit has been filed in the name of Justice, The Trump Administration must be made aware of the Overreach, perjury, abuse of power and the failure to uphold the Oath of their position which is truth and Justice for all,” he wrote.
With its all-encompassing components, the only logical thing to do while you’re in isolation is to watch “Tiger King.” According to a video posted on Twitter Saturday by Jeff Lowe, a former Joe Exotic business partner, fans will be treated to another episode, tentatively scheduled for release next week.
“Netflix is adding one more episode that will be on next week,” Lowe said, “we’re filming here tomorrow.”
Contact Christopher S. Cann at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrstophercann.
“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” premiered on Netflix March 20.