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March 31, 2020

Review: Tiger King, TV's #1 Show Right Now

(Featured image via Netflix)

Now that quarantines have given us all the time in the world, what better way to entertain ourselves than bingeing a trashy new docu-series? Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is one of those shows you don’t really want to watch, but you just can’t look away. And while this show may not be your cup of tea, at #1 in the U.S. on Netflix, your teen might just be loving every second of it. (Warning: spoilers!)

Tiger King follows the life of a narcissistic zookeeper self-named “Joe Exotic,” who’s every bit as charismatic and wild as his name suggests. He’s a gay tiger owner who makes country music (not really), runs an online show starring (you guessed it) himself, and ran for president back in 2016. Yes, he really does all of that. It’s a show packed with twists and turns you could hardly believe; from cult-like followings to polyamory, this show literally has it all and it’s absolutely bonkers. Good T.V.? Hardly. Odd and undeniably entertaining? Absolutely.

Joe Exotic runs a private zoo that primarily features big cats aka tigers. But what starts out as a (seemingly) legitimate love for tigers quickly spirals down into a never-ending lust for money. Quality care for the animals becomes an afterthought as he pursues cheap mall performances and lets people take selfies with baby tigers. But the abuse doesn’t go unnoticed. Joe’s got an arch-nemesis: Carole Baskin, founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, an organization that fights to save exotic cats from unsafe environments. And no, this isn’t some cartoonish joke made for T.V., Baskin is Joe’s literal enemy, who he consistently bashes in graphic detail throughout the entire show.

Safe to say, meme-makers have had an absolute heyday with this guy. If your kid has been sharing memes about this “Joe Exotic” person, hopefully this offers some clarity.

Not a second of this wild story goes unfilmed because, on top of the documentary crew following him around for five years and starring in his own internet show, throughout the doc he’s also being filmed for a reality show produced by Rick Kirkham. (This reality show never actually aired, as every piece of footage was burned up in a fire after Joe discovered some unsavory bits of his life captured on tape…suspicious…)

But wait, there’s more. The docu-series also features other tiger-taming friends of Joe who’ve made their fortunes off of their animals, including Bhagavan “Doc” Antle and Jeff Lowe, each character more crooked than the last. The zookeepers that the docu-series features all have this cult-type structure that keeps their employees coming back despite gruesome 16-hour days and extremely low pay (Joe paid his employees $150/week plus “housing” aka a rundown trailer; Doc pays his employees just $100/week). Even Carole Baskin, who’s supposed to be the good one, has her own hierarchy of volunteers and strange power dynamics. So what made the employees stay? Partly for the animals that they loved, but largely for their deep emotional ties to the zoo owners. Joe had not one, but two husbands who only married him for his drug supply, and Doc has multiple women as “partners.” The bonds that both Joe and Doc cultivated with these people created a sort of slave, bonded relationship. They need Joe and Doc for basic support, love, housing, community, and money, and they don’t really know any other way. (One girl escaped Doc’s animal preserve, read her story here.)

If that’s not crazy enough, let’s throw in an attempted murder. By the end of the docu-series, Joe is behind bars, ironically placing him in the exact position he’d kept his tigers in for years. He’s arrested on a murder-for-hire charge, and can you guess who he tried to have killed? Yup, his arch-nemesis Carole Baskin. It all seems too crazy, too insane to be true, but unfortunately, it is very, very real.

But what really shines through in this docu-series is the portrayal of American greed—for money, sex, fame and attention, everything—and flawed humanity at its grimiest. These are the stories of men and women frothing at the mouth for another way to earn money and, in Joe’s case, get famous by any means possible. If your teen watched this docu-series they probably thought, like the rest of the world, “these people are completely crazy!” But it’s worth pointing out to them that lust and greed really aren’t all that crazy, Joe Exotic might’ve just taken it a bit further than your average Joe. It’s easy to watch people like this as if they’re caricatures who don’t really exist in the real world, but the truth is, we all have the same tendencies toward worldly passions. If we become so attached to something that we’ll do anything to feed that desire, we could all end up like Joe (maybe not the prison part, but you get the idea).

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