Tiger King offers a bewildering buffet of big cat world drama
Theaters are closed, and new movie releases are in limbo. Since most of us are holed up watching shows that are streaming online, I thought, “Why not write about one of those?” As fate would have it, before my thoughts had even fully materialized, my son called and uttered the words that many of you have probably heard over the past few days. “You have got to watch Tiger King.” When I tried to have him nail down what it was about, he struggled, stating it was kind of a documentary, sort of a character study and kind of a murder mystery, before giving up and ending with, “You’ll just have to watch it for yourself.” I decided I’d bite (pun very much intended) and see what had him so intrigued.
When my own father was flabbergasted and didn’t know what else to say he would shake his head and utter, “Goodness gracious, sakes alive.” After only one episode of “Tiger King” I could hear those very words ringing in my head. No wonder my son couldn’t verbalize what it was about. It defies description. Apparently, co-directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin started out intending to do some kind of expose’ revealing the exploitation of exotic animals being bred in private zoos across the country. However, the owners of the parks turned out to be such an amazing menagerie of ex-cons, con men, egoists, and opportunists that the story became about them. The tigers they exploited ended up functioning as a backdrop magnifying their need to feel powerful, rich, and influential.
The story centers on Joe Exotic, a flamboyant breeder of tigers and owner of an exotic animal park in Oklahoma. He has indeed created his own kingdom, at its peak, a forty-acre world bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in tiger sales, cub petting payments, and entry fees. But kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, especially if the monarch begins to believe himself invincible, and Joe has big dreams and picks even bigger fights with any that don’t buy into his divinely-ordained status. As his resources run out and his enemies become too powerful, his bizarre journey intersects with many colorful characters including a cult-inspiring curator named “Doc” Antle, an ex-drug lord rumored to be the real-life “Scarface,” and an animal rights activist who inherited her tiger ranch after her millionaire husband mysteriously disappeared. We watch as Joe’s fights and ambitions gradually crumble his kingdom into nothing but an ignominious jail cell.
This is not a show that you sit down and watch with your kids. There is accidental death and dismemberment, gratuitous use of homemade country music video, polygamy, alleged murder, murder for hire, arson, drugs, guns, explosives, a presidential campaign — and that only scratches the surface of the events that continue to build over seven episodes. Astonishingly, there were cameras everywhere, constantly following Joe around, somehow capturing numerous unexpected events on film.
While looking for an apt description of Netflix series, I found one online reporter compare it to “watching a slow-motion car crash, but only if that car crashed into a jet plane and then both tumbled into an oil tanker.” Yup, that about sums it up. Once the credits roll on the final episode, it is difficult to say if there is any redeeming value in watching Joe and other private zookeepers trapped in their own cages of insecurity, greed, and need for attention. For me, it was like opening a bag of chips, intending to just eat one or two, and then shamefully discovering I had eaten the whole bag. I felt a bit guilty, knowing I had caved so easily to the temptation. But I’ll tell you what. My mind was off of the newsfeeds describing the crazy world outside because the one on my screen turned out to be even crazier.