Tiger King is one of the strongest contenders for most watchable TV show of the year, and it’s a problem. A documentary miniseries comprising seven quick episodes, each under an hour, you could watch the whole thing in a weekend; given the subject, you’ll probably finish even faster.
The Netflix series follows a man both larger than life and smothered by it: Joe Exotic, the one-time owner of a successful-seeming private zoo with over 200 tigers and other big cats. He’s a man who ran for president of the United States, then governor of Oklahoma, and then sometime after, may have tried to hire someone to kill his nemesis, a woman dedicated to shutting his zoo down. It’s incredibly compelling, and terribly so: Tiger King is almost wholly dedicated to spectacle, with little interest in any sense of truth. And the truth is about as gutting as Tiger King is sensational.
As the eponymous Tiger King, Joe Exotic is magnetic: a ball-capped, mulleted man who swaggers with a knee brace and a drawl, wearing some combination of fringe vests, chaps, and bedazzled shirts at all times. You’ve never seen anyone on television like him. Born Joe Schreibvogel, the man’s eccentricities are accompanied by a tragic backstory that Tiger King will deliver piecemeal and in passing. For the first few episodes, we meet him more or less fully formed: a man who has built a small empire with his larger-than-life personality and his equally large cats, an empire that, somehow, crumbled and landed him in prison.
Every minute of Tiger King yields some new surprise, an unbelievable turn or charismatic stranger with incredible stories to tell. The documentary plays fast and loose with these anecdotes, as Joe Exotic shows us how he married two men at once, went into business with a guy who snuck tiger cubs into Vegas casinos, or nearly got mauled by one of his own lions. With no warning, the show also veers into immensely dark territory, as its subjects recount manipulative and abusive relationships, a death by suicide, and Joe Exotic’s sustained hate campaign against Carole Baskin, an activist committed to ending big cat ownership in America whom Joe Exotic also believes killed her wealthy husband for money.
As Tiger King goes on, its greatest strength — the litany of unbelievable stories it has to share — becomes its most concerning weakness, as the filmmakers don’t really seem to be interested in telling a story about its subjects as they are in milking them dry. There’s little point to Tiger King beyond its sensational thrills and credulously presenting everyone it puts in front of a camera. The show does not, for example, present any context for how seriously you should take the allegation that Carole Baskin killed her husband — so now this allegation is fodder for viral tweets, grist for the content mill that happens to have real-world fallout: new leads in case of Baskin’s missing ex-husband are being sought out.
It’s likely that you will watch Tiger King and wonder if there’s more to the story, and you’d be right. A cursory search for facts will likely lead to a 2019 New York Magazine feature about the tangled histories of Schreibvogel and Baskin, reconstructing their early lives and detailing their rivalry. Laid out in print, the story is far more sobering than the occasional flashes of somber distress we get on the show. Both Schreibvogel and Baskin are reportedly victims of abuse, dogged by misfortune and embraced by strange circumstances. Truth is elusive in both of their lives; Schreibvogel appears to be a serial fabulist and Baskin’s public persona has a singular focus, with few public associations beyond the cats she keeps on her preserve. In their orbits, lives are destroyed — the overwhelming number of them sacrifices dedicated to the myth of the Tiger King.
There’s a level of complicity to viral fame that’s hard to square with shows like Tiger King. In the streaming era, interest is often the result of direct action. There’s very little passivity left in how we entertain ourselves. We choose what to watch, what to recommend, and who to listen to, so if something like Tiger King is a viral hit, it feels organic, like something we’re all talking about because we’re genuinely interested in it.
Because of this, Tiger King becomes content that generates more content on websites and social media, which, in turn, leads more people back to Tiger King. This, then, eventually leads to the extremely online becoming amateur sleuths and flooding Florida tip lines about a decades-old murder case. Through this cycle, suffering becomes sport — something that can be said of a lot of true-crime media — but also a call to action.
It can be seen in the way the popularity of My Favorite Murder encourages listeners to adopt a vindictive view of the role of law enforcement or in the entire cottage industry spun out of Serial’s first season, which birthed an entertainment empire around the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed. It’s a phenomenon fueled by our need to seek resolution where there often is none to be found. In the absence of finality, we post into the infinite. The tyranny of the internet bleeds into the real world: if there’s enough content, eventually, that content becomes real life. We are consumed by the tiger king.