Reviewing Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness immediately after binge watching the entire show might not have been the best idea. You’re bound to need a moment to catch your breath after barreling through seven straight episodes of unethical and extremely dangerous business practices, backstabbing, threats and inflated egos.
The new Netflix docu-series puts the spotlight on the community of big cat owners operating in the United States, with a significant amount of screen time being devoted to the story of Oklahoma zoo owner and Internet personality Joe Exotic. As presented in the first episode, “Not Your Average Joe,” Tiger King presents its title character as an eccentric individual with a deep appreciation for big cats and an enthusiasm for sharing that passion with others. At one point, Joe even points out that he’s more likely to secure donations for wildlife conservation if he pitches the cause to an individual who’s busy cuddling one of his cubs. On top of that? Joe staffs the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park with folks in need of lifelines or second chances and for them, the day-to-day appears to be challenging but deeply fulfilling work.
The trouble is, Joe has a rival, Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. She takes great pride in running her own accredited sanctuary while also trying to take down operations like Joe’s, accusing them of breeding animals for financial gain. It’s a whole lot of “he said, she said” and trying to corroborate their accusations based on roughly 47 minutes of footage introducing viewers to their respective facilities. By the end of that first episode, opinions are starting to form and questions are bubbling up; Carole is going after Joe for keeping his big cats in cages, but isn’t she doing the same? And yes, Joe is certainly an eccentric guy, but his staff seems grateful for the opportunity to work at the GW Zoo and they’re all constantly showering the cats with love. Is it really as bad as Carole is making it out to be?
If assessing the situation were only that simple! If you’ve read the full title of the series, you know Tiger King isn’t just about the big cat controversy; there truly is murder, mayhem and madness at play. Put all of that together and you wind up with a downright bizarre and alarming life or death situation.
This series had to be a major structural challenge for directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, and the duo are very successful in that respect. “Not Your Average Joe” is largely focused on setting the scene and teeing up the rivalry between Joe and Carole. Then, with the second episode, “Cult of Personality,” Goode and Chaiklin add in some serious physical risks and also some controversial lifestyle choices associated with the big cat business. Then toss in the rumor that Carole murdered her then-husband, Don Lewis. And if all of that isn’t enough, we’ve also got a slew of dubious business practices, Joe running for Governor of Oklahoma, arson, serious injury and death on the property, and of course, Joe being accused of placing a hit on Carole.
It’s a lot, but this is where Goode and Chaiklin’s formatting choices excel. As someone with limited knowledge of Joe Exotic and the big cat community, I walked into the first episode of Tiger King a blank slate. The pair delivered the basics on Joe in that first episode, which essentially felt like a first impression. And we all like to go out of our way to make a good first impression, right? However, as the show progresses, they reveal cracks in Joe’s composure and also in the GW Zoo which, at the start of the series, comes across like a big cat oasis.
Yes, folks like Joe Exotic are eccentric to say the least, but Tiger King doesn’t exploit that for the sake of good TV. It builds its foundation with sincerity and then starts loading challenges on top of it. You’ve got the pressure from Carole which ultimately turns into a pricy lawsuit, a business partnership that doesn’t pan out, the loss of a loved one, and so much more. And with every single challenge, more problematic qualities about Joe and his operation come into focus. The show frequently references the power that comes with holding a tiger. Taking a photo with a big cat makes one feel good about him or herself – which, as the show points out, is probably why dating apps are overrun with them. While I don’t have a photo with a lion or tiger myself, just seeing Joe play with tiger cubs like I play with my own eight pound house cat initially comes across as magical and charming. It takes time to fully understand the problems of owning exotic animals, which might be why the United States is so far behind passing the legislation needed to stop this from happening.
On top of that, Tiger King also proves to be a fascinating character study of a man who becomes so power-hungry and resentful that he winds up in prison. Was Joe Exotic an angel before the events of this docu-series? Highly doubtful. But one thing that does feel palpable at the beginning of the show is his love for his cats, a love that we see slowly rot away as Joe becomes completely consumed by his desperation to take down Carole and also his determination to make money, no matter what it takes.
As far as Joe Exotic’s story goes, Goode and Chaiklin craft a winning series with Tiger King. The show paints a very full picture of its title character and takes him through a well defined beginning, middle and end. That’s not the case with the long list of supporting characters in Tiger King, however. There is some lingering frustration that comes with never finding out what really happened to Carol’s husband, having Doc Antle’s story conclude with a title card and never getting to see some of Joe’s accomplices prosecuted for their part in the crime. But, that desperation to find out what happens next is one of the things that makes Tiger King so much more than just another fleeting reality TV craze. Holding people accountable for serious crimes isn’t an easy operation and in this case, innocent animals are becoming the victims of that problematic system. Tiger King is a wildly entertaining reality binge-watch, but it could have a lasting effect that raises awareness and inspire change as well.