NETFLIX REVIEW – TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS (2020)
Directed by: Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin
Executive Producers: Chris Smith, Fisher Stevens, Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin
Cinematography: Damien Drake
Edited by: Doug Abel, Nicholas Biagetti, Dylan Hansen-Fliedner, Daniel Koehler, Geoffrey Richmond
Original Network: Netflix
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Mark Twain
Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds created by writers, showrunners and filmmakers, but sometimes it’s important to face the “truth” in storytelling. Thus, documentary filmmaking has always been a popular genre too. Having said that are documentaries actually reflecting the truth? Because the documentary genre over the years has become ultra-sophisticated and many “true” stories are not just simply filmed documents or events or interviews. Now, documentaries are often carefully constructed and mediated narratives with as much, if not more, drama and turns in their tales than fictional works. Conversely, some stories and characters are so incredible they are indeed stranger than fiction.
Netflix churns out a lot of quality and not-so high-quality content. There is an arguably scattergun approach with subscribers paying their money and taking their chances. They have of course had some big hits. The documentary Making a Murderer (2015), prestige Royalty drama, The Crown (2016 – ) and 1980’s sci-fi show Stranger Things (2016 – ) are three such shows that have become cultural phenomenon. The latest one is the docuseries Tiger King (2020); a true crime documentary centred around eccentric, to say the least, zookeeper, Joe Exotic (not his real name). Filmed in a “fly-on-the-wall” form it covers a six-year period from 2014 to 2020. The setting is a number of zoos and animal “sanctuaries” in Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina respectively. These zoos contain some of the most dangerous animals in the world, namely humans. They also contain tigers, lions, leopards, panthers, chimpanzees, lemurs, snakes and all manner of other exotic animals. So, with larger than life people and animals on show, what could possibly go wrong?
This series presents the very worst examples of human madness, cruelty and behaviour. Firstly, I must say that there are some decent people in the show. Some of the zookeepers do display care for the animals and make it their living to protect them, however, the documentary illustrates powerfully the institutional cruelty of those individuals who breed and keep animals in cages for money. Even Carole Baskin, Joe’s bitter rival, who runs the Big Cat Rescue zoo in Tampa, Florida, and an advocate for saving these animals, did seem to make a lot of money out of it. I guess we’re all to blame in society though as we have all visited zoos and safari parks in our day. But this is not an advocate documentary for an organisation like PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), although they certainly were able to use the footage as evidence for their cause. This, ultimately, is a tabloid expose of a world containing some of the most narcissistic and insane people you could encounter. It’s car-crash-freak-show-television and I feel ashamed to say I was gripped by this zoological soap opera from start to finish.
The leading lunatic is aforementioned Joe Exotic. He is a gay, mullet-haired, gun-toting, self-promoting, country-and-western “singing”, rage-addicted polygamist. Even the greatest Hollywood screenwriter could not invent such a character. Over seven startling episodes the series charts his rise and fall from successful zookeeper to failed politician to eventually, well, I won’t give away the ending. The other characters of the series are just as dodgy. While she does seem to be doing some good, Carole Baskin, was presented as some weird ‘Mother Earth’ type who may or may not have killed her husband. Joe Exotic’s hatred of her drives the narrative and his words and actions toward her are pure malevolence. Other big cat owners such as, Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, and Joe’s former business partner, Jeff Lowe, feature prominently throughout. Doc Antle seemed the sanest of the lot and had provided animals for big Hollywood productions, however, even his lifestyle, according to the documentary, seemed to involve grooming younger women and examples of animal cruelty.
Overall, this short review merely skims the surface of what goes on in this explosive TV show. There are big cat attacks, lawsuits, deaths, murder plots, suspected suicides, drug abuse, arson, constant threats, political campaigns, federal investigations and court indictments. It is both an intense viewing spectacle and also a tragic one. The animals kept in cages are so beautiful and majestic, it is sad that their lives are one of incarceration. The crazy thing is that they were bred in captivity for profit by the likes of Joe Exotic and then sadly discarded when of no use. Tiger King (2020) presents a truth that people do not deserve this Earth and I’m ashamed to be part of the human race. On the other hand, this string of crazy characters and events make absolutely sensational television. The biggest tragedy is the animals will continue to be prisoners, while attention-seeking people profit from such cruelty.