Tiger King was the Netflix sensation that no one expected. 34.3 million people watched it within the first 10 days of its release. Released on March 20, 2020, the mini true crime documentary series follows the life of zookeeper Joe Exotic and other major players in the “big cat” world.
Every major character its ethically dubious.
If a show about a man who owns a zoo full of big tigers and other exotic cats seems a little too bizarre to be highly popular, I totally get it. I felt the same when I first heard of the premise, but with some urging and recommendations from friends, I bit the bullet and decided to watch. I was enthralled and trust me, you will be too.
Tiger King is definitely unlike any show you’ve ever seen, but the big personalities and crazy premise combined with the intrigue of a true crime, make it a perfect guilty pleasure watch. I binged it in two days and the drama and twists did not disappoint.
The show quickly sets up a fierce rivalry between Joe Exotic, the owner and operator of The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, and big cat conservationists and activists like Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue (an animal sanctuary in Florida). The lines between right and wrong and good and bad blur as the show continues. Toward the last episodes of the series, law enforcement and criminal activity weave its way into the plot (no spoilers).
The show blurs the lines between right and wrong.
However, throughout the 7 episodes, the series creates a complex portrait of the flawed documentary subjects it focuses on. What is so interesting about Tiger King is how almost every major subject introduced is ethically dubious. A show with no heroes or even clear scapegoats leaves plenty of room for intrigue.
A large part of the appeal of the show undoubtedly also is the big personalities that it showcases. Joe Exotic, born Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, is a prime example. His last name, “exotic,” which he adopted himself, tells the audience immediately that he is bound to be unconventional.
The rest of his mannerisms, appearance, and life story only enhance the bizarre spectacle that is Joe. His strippy, bleached mullet, ostentatious wardrobe, gay, polyamorous identity, and cultish-following make him seem almost cartoonish and unreal. Throw in his attempted political career (a 2016 presidential run and race for governor) and his country music videos and Joe exotic seems downright scripted.
While watching, I found myself continually intrigued and incredulous at the antics of all the main people involved. I formed strong opinions quickly. For example, I firmly believed Carole Baskin was less innocent than she seemed. I even had a bit of a soft spot for Joe Exotic, despite his clear guilt at times. Overall the story and the personalities were what sold me about the show. I couldn’t get enough of the drama. It pulls you in the way most true crime stories do; it’s like a car wreck, but you just can’t tear your eyes away.
The show thrives on pageantry and spectacle.
The show since then has infiltrated all the popular social media app. TikTok in particular was buzzing for months after Netflix released the show. Trending TikToks featured men and women dressing up and doing makeup looks inspired by Joe Exotic, decked out in tacky animal prints and trucker hats. TikTok user (@caleb jaxin) even created an original sound to the tune of the song Savage by Megan Thee Stallion, with Tiger King based lyrics. The song lyrics go like this: “Carole Baskin. Killed her husband, wacked him. Can’t convince me that it didn’t happen. Fed him to tigers they snackin’, what’s happening. Carole Baskin.” Tons of TikTokkers have danced to his sound since he created it, and Megan even shared it on her Instagram:
Tiger King on the whole is enjoyable trash TV at its finest. It is so confusing and weird and fascinating that you can’t seem to peel your eyes away. Watching it almost makes you feel like you are at a circus of sorts yourself. The show’s success thrives on the pageantry and spectacle of both the animals and humans portrayed within it.
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