The Netflix Docuseries “Tiger King” Is More Spectacle Than Substance
Even by reality television standards, Netflix’s new show is completely wild. But it never moves beyond caricature. (Spoilers ahead.)
There's "a lot of drama in the zoo world," says one of Joe Exotic’s employees in the final chapter of Tiger King, a new Netflix show focused on the world of exotic pet owners. It’s a rare moment of understatement for the otherwise over-the-top docuseries.
Kim Kardashian West tweeted about the “crazy” show, and it seems like the entire internet has turned to the wacky series as an escape from the ongoing global pandemic, with memes proliferating around the titular character: Joe Maldonado-Passage, or Joe Exotic as he calls himself. And it’s no wonder, because the pierced, tattooed gun-toting gay man, who in the episodes professes his love of tigers, ligers, and lions, has seemingly spent his life preparing to be a star.
Maldonado-Passage was the onetime owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma (which he merchandised with his likeness, including underwear in the gift shop), and the docuseries tracks his bizarre rise and fall. It also documents his relationships with the wider world of exotic animals and their owners in the US, including nemesis and animal conservationist Carole Baskin, a woman with a soothing radio voice and penchant for animal prints who may or may not have murdered her missing millionaire husband.
In early 2020, Joe was sentenced to 22 years in prison after being convicted of two counts of murder-for-hire and 17 wildlife charges, including violating the Endangered Species Act. This true crime angle serves as the documentary’s ostensible throughline, though the filmmakers had started following him long before, hoping to capture the strange subculture of exotic animals and the hucksters, outlandish drama, and petty disputes that characterize it.
But what promised to be a potentially satisfying crime drama is actually a messy series, with dashes of gonzo journalism (codirector Eric Goode appears on camera as a conduit for even more hijinks), and some basic Blackfish-style commentary on animal rights, that never really moves away from its main character’s overtly caricaturing impulses.
There’s a reason Joe Exotic’s story has already been the subject of longform articles and a podcast; with its petty rivalries and over-the-top cast of characters, it’s the kind of yarn that’s full of the stranger-than-fiction details that feel like a world away from what most people might know.
So it’s only natural it’s now gotten the Netflix treatment too. As the series opens, we hear Joe tell the self-mythologizing backstory of how he started the park in memory of his brother who died, and how it became a big success thanks in part to Exotic’s role as a sequin-jacketed entertainer who kept crowds coming as much as the big cats did.
The show delves into the 55-year-old’s life as a rural gun-toting libertarian who marries his two husbands in a throuple ceremony on camera, though neither (much younger) husband identifies as gay. He met them when they were both 19 and seemed to seduce them with trucks, guns, and drugs (including meth). The short glimpses into their relationship offer a rare representation of some of the struggles and specificities of rural queerness, but the husbands are treated as ancillary characters — one is shown talking about his love of pink ammo gear — and only used to contextualize Joe and his world.
The husbands are treated as ancillary characters — one is shown talking about his love of pink ammo gear — and only used to contextualize Joe and his world.
Joe is a self-documenting narcissist, with cameras trained on him and every corner of the park seemingly all the time. He even hires a former tabloid TV producer to create a reality show about his life at Wynnewood and makes dozens of music videos about his love of big cats, his husbands, and, eventually, his overwhelming hatred of Carole Baskin, that are endlessly replayed throughout the doc for their entertainment value (especially their seemingly un-self-aware ridiculousness).
As the show expands to the other characters who run exotic animal parks across the southern US, we see some interesting patterns — namely how exotic cat ownership coexists with a love for guns, cries for freedom, and creepy masculine egos. Doc Antle, for instance, seems to use his zoo to lure impressionable young women into his polygamist crew, renaming them and making sure they’re always dressed like sexy tour guides or cats themselves. (One woman who eventually leaves Antle’s park tells viewers how cultish life was under the big cat guru.)
Even Carole Baskin, who self-presents as an altruistic animal rights advocate, gets an entire Dateline-esque episode focused on the mystery of her missing husband, including allegations by the exotic animal owners that she fed him to her own big cats. (She has since spoken out against the series.)
But the show quickly jets back to Joe, whose ego continues spiraling out of control. He runs for president and, once that bid fails, then governor of Oklahoma as a Libertarian. He also may or may not have burned down his recording studio after he learns the tabloid producer owns the rights to the neverending footage he’s been shooting. And then his young husband, Travis, kills himself. One of the friends mentions how dead-end Travis’s life felt for him, but it’s treated as part of the crescendoing madness of Joe’s own life.
Travis’s mom talks about how devastated she is to realize that Joe has already moved on to another young man just two months after Travis’s death and used her as a prop to publicly affirm his new marriage. The scenes of her crying at the funeral — intercut with footage of Joe’s country music — seems unnecessarily intrusive. (And I say that as a habitual watcher of reality television).
There’s a veneer of a gawking, outsider coastal elitism over the entire series that smacks of the same kind of anthropological gaze over rural life (and queerness) that the popular podcast S-Town also engaged in. The difference is that S-Town’s host at least foregrounded his journalist’s gaze and made it part of the story, whereas here everything seems to be presented as a potentially laughable spectacle. (Some of the reaction and memes have followed along the documentary’s tone.)
Tiger King does tap into some revealing undercurrents, though, like the rural economic malaise underlying the more glamorous aspects of the big cat trade. One of the most poignant aspects of the series is the assortment of characters Joe Exotic assembles to keep his park in business. These workers are paid just a little over a hundred dollars a week to work extremely long, strenuous days, and seem to make do by taking some of the often expired meat that’s donated from Walmart and meant to feed the animals.
There’s a veneer of a gawking, outsider coastal elitism over the entire series.
Their devotion helps keep Joe afloat. One worker even loses most of his arm after a cat bites it when he sticks his arm in a cage but still quickly returns to work to avoid bad publicity. When the series focuses on Joe’s relationship to these workers, who are, as one puts it, all misfits working for the biggest misfit of all, it actually captures something nuanced and evocative about the mixture of sincerity and ruthless exploitation hiding beneath his outsize persona.
In the final episodes of the series, Joe’s anger at Carole Baskin becomes even darker, especially as Baskin embarks on numerous lawsuits against Joe and the park — and even Joe’s mother. As the lawsuits continue to mount, Joe is in dire need of money and on the precipice of losing the park altogether. Enter Jeff Lowe, who is presented as perhaps the shadiest entrepreneur of this subculture, who seems to have very little need or love for the cats beyond making himself some money (he even hosts a Vegas bus with tiger cubs to ferry people around, and as seems to be de rigueur in this world, has a creepy relationship to women, including allegations of choking one girlfriend). He brings in his own staff to the park, some of whom clash with Joe, and as presented here, aids in a federal investigation against Joe for two attempted murder-for-hire plots against Baskin and numerous wildlife violations.
Joe is ultimately convicted, but it all feels less tragic than inevitable, and the fact that he may or may not have been set up feels unimportant. Despite the wild settings, Joe seems to be something of a common con artist who isn’t all that successful in the end; when it’s revealed that he has been shooting the tigers he claims to love when they’ve worn out their cuteness as cubs, one is hardly surprised, even though the series seems to be.
Tiger King relies so much on the reams of sensational footage of tigers and drama that it’s almost like a series of vignettes searching for meaning. Is it really that revelatory that Joe Exotic isn’t all good and that maybe the exotic cat trade is just a very lucrative business and not really about the love of big cats? No. And yet, as with Joe himself, the show’s unrelenting barrage of mayhem and spectacle is hard to turn away from. ●
An earlier version of this post misgendered one of Joe Exotic's employees.