Review: 'Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness' is an expose on eccentricity
“Tiger King'' is one of the wildest true-crime stories Netflix has given us so far — so much so that its larger-than-life characters eclipse the documentary series’ initial mission of shining light on animal rights issues. The show follows the eccentric Joe Exotic (whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage), a self-described “gay, gun-carrying-redneck with a mullet” who created one of the biggest wildlife preservation centers for exotic cats, along with his menagerie of exotic animal owner colleagues who prove even wilder than their pets. The directors of “Tiger King,” Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, untangle the complicated and at times surreal world of Exotic to deliver a must-see story of a zookeeper who lands himself in jail for a murder-for-hire plot targeting his long-time rival, big cat activist Carole Baskin, who is shrouded in her own felonious controversies. Despite its mild attempt to address ethical questions about animal rights, “Tiger King” is, at heart, a true crime documentary that spotlights outsized personalities.
The seven-episode series originally intended to uncover abuse in the exotic animal industry. Goode planned to investigate reptile smuggling in South Florida, when he saw something shocking. At an animal dealer’s home, Goode witnessed a man pull up in a windowless van with a snow leopard sweltering in a cage in the back in 100-degree heat. This set Goode on a wholly new course investigating large cat owners, where his path soon naturally crossed with Exotic, the “king” of big cats himself, as well as his motley crew of cat-obsessed associates.
Goode admitted to Vanity Fair magazine that Netflix steered the focus of the series toward the outsized personalities at the expense of the animal rights activism issues. This shift in perspective was a wise choice, as it makes the series rewarding to watch for the casual viewer. It may not be focused on the same issues, but it can clearly make people laugh.
The characters in “Tiger King” are as shady as they are zany, and they offer a welcome respite from the uncertainty and fear faced by many amid a global public health crisis. Turn from the latest national press conferences and watch Bhagavan “Doc” Antle of the Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, a pony-tailed doctor of mystical sciences, or Mario Tabraue, “the prototype for Scarface” whose drug trafficking funds his acquisition of animals or Jeff Lowe, a seedy Las Vegas businessman who uses cuddly tiger cubs to bait women into threesomes with his wife. Outlandish characters are the bread and butter of “Tiger King;” they are what makes this show worth watching.
The central character, Exotic, is by far the most complex and entertaining. He is a man who uses animals to fill a void in his life, only to recklessly pursue fame and political aspirations at the animals’ expense. He is a garrulous entertainer at the zoo, but there are sinister rumors that he abuses his animals. Swaggering around his park with colorful unbuttoned shirts, a pistol and his many husbands, Exotic can be funny and eccentric, but he can also be fanatical and frightening. The duality of Exotic’s character — a sympathetic maniac — perhaps explains his viral appeal. It’s no surprise that Exotic has been trending on Instagram and other social media since the show debuted on March 20. Perhaps apropos in today’s world, the plot surrounding Exotic takes so many twists and turns that the truth is often hard to discern.
Equally prominent in the show is Exotic’s archenemy Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue. Believing that Exotic abuses his animals, she works tirelessly to put him out of business, but he proves a resilient and perverse foe. He abuses a “Carole” blow-up doll during his nightly webcasts, and in one of his music videos, an actor dressed as Baskin feeds chunks of meat — allegedly hunks of flesh from her husband who mysteriously disappeared — to the lions.
Unsavory as they may be at times, the characters of “Tiger King” are engaging to watch and make for a must-see show and a great binge-watch to escape the news. However, the series’ finale seems almost like an entirely different show. The conclusion makes an awkward 11th inning attempt to rein in the show’s absurdities and turn the camera to animal rights issues. In one of the last scenes of the show, Exotic reflects on whether his animals are happy. He recalls the time he sold two chimpanzees that had been in cages next to each other for 10 years. Within two days in residence at their new zoo, the primate pair were embracing each other in an open yard, inseparable. He concludes only somewhat remorsefully that he deprived his animals of this for years. Grounding observations such as these were too few and far between in “Tiger King,” leaving any message regarding animal rights unfortunately underdeveloped.
This show could have taken a more somber perspective on the abuse of animals by exotic pet owners, but it chose to focus on what became the obvious heart of the story — the exoticism of the animal owners themselves. Still, “Tiger King” is a worthwhile watch for those looking to get away from the unrelentingly negative news cycle.