It’s easy for things to get out of control. Like riffing and telling morbid jokes when among friends. Sometimes when the joke goes on too long, when the concept gets taken too far, it goes from being darkly funny to just really, really dark. Almost revealing. A bit too grim for comfort or laughter. That’s “Tiger King.”
The new Netflix series has taken social media by storm, partially due to the fact that Netflix bingeing has become a part of the daily lives of many people in quarantine, but mostly because it’s really, really good.
The series follows Joseph Allen Moldonado-Passage, born Joseph Schreibvogel, but better known as Joe Exotic. Joe is a flamboyantly gay, badass and batshit crazy redneck: a polygamist; a magician; a one-time anti-drug speaker; a possible sociopath; a meth addict; a 2016 presidential candidate—his campaign videos being featured on John Oliver; a big cat collector; and he recently became a convicted felon. He’s basically the most interesting person in America. But despite being the main focus, Joe is just a gateway drug for audiences into a larger network of psychotic and garish characters.
Viewers are slowly drawn into the increasingly complex and morally dubious world of big cat enthusiasts and collectors. Early episodes will have viewers with their jaws on the floor, often laughing from the pure absurdity of it. By the end, it’s grown into something much more disturbing.
“Tiger King” is not a typical Netflix crime series. For one, it actually took five years to make, so events on screen played out in front of the documentary crew as they happened in real-time. And not only is the show fairly meaty, with seven hour-long episodes, it just never loses steam. No screen time is wasted on pointless threads or rehashing previous information. Eric Goode and his team did an expert job in choosing a subject. There is no shortage of mind-boggling rabbit holes to travel down in the world of big cat traders. Eric Goode is also not your typical documentarian: he’s primarily a New York-based entrepreneur and conservation activist, which explains his insider knowledge of cult figures like Joe Exotic in the first place.
Goode and his team clearly know their long-form storytelling structure. The series is relentlessly addictive because each episode ends on a paradigm-shifting cliffhanger or plot twist that will leave viewers unable to resist clicking on the next episode. While cliffhangers are traditionally seen as cheap—a shameless ploy to keep TV viewers coming back every week—in the age of Netflix binge-watching, they’re kind of necessary. And since viewers don’t have to wait to see a payoff, which “Tiger King” always delivers on, it’s less frustrating. The only annoyance is knowing it’s 2 a.m. and you should probably be asleep, but “Tiger King” just won’t stop being entertaining.
All the subjects are offered a sense of nuance and tragedy to them, nearly all of them having deeply dysfunctional and troubled upbringings, and yet, none of them come out unscathed. Nearly everyone featured in the series is cruel, manipulative, unhinged and cartoonish. Joe Exotic, as the epicenter of the narrative and the subject with the most screen time, is ultimately a deeply pitiable man. His narcissistic craving for attention is at first pathetic and crass, but there’s something more.
“Tiger King” presents, at its core, the sad portrait of a man with no friends or family vying for love and admiration and fame in any way he can. There’s hints that Joe is unsatisfied with his life in many ways, and really does love people, but only insofar as they serve as disposable emotional support pegs or ego boosters. That’s where the moral disgust comes in. Joe is extremely charismatic and possesses shades of an empathetic character, but make no mistake: he’s probably a narcissistic sociopath. He uses people and animals with equal recklessness, and seems unfazed by all the harm he causes others. With all that said, that’s not the main appeal of the series. That is merely a facet of what allows “Tiger King” such a wide appeal and makes the story so darkly intriguing. All of this deep psychological probing and human tragedy is layered underneath a heaping coat of chaotic, white trash insanity.
There’s something about white trash crazy that’s just funnier—and scarier—than other blends of crazy. “Tiger King” lets viewers revel in the bombastic and wild world of white trash crazy, and then lets them feel really bad about having so much fun as the unveiling of each new fact gets more and more unsettling and ominous.
Joe is by no means the only trailer-park psycho we are treated with. The rest of the cast are essentially what would happen if the reality show trainwrecks from TLC had demented bastard children with the villains from a Rob Zombie movie.
There’s Doc Antle: a pseudo-cult leader who lures young, impressionable women to his tiger sanctuary, where he indoctrinates them into a completely tacky and corny New Age religion of his own making while grooming them into his ‘wives’—sometimes coercing them into getting cosmetic surgery to fit a certain ‘type’ and changing their names.
There’s also Jeff Lowe. He’s a sleazy con man who also lures young and attractive women to Vegas hotel suites for photo shoots with baby tigers, which he and his wife smuggle to said rooms illegally via suitcases, so they can potentially hook up. Jeff’s right hand man is Allen Glover—is a mysterious and transparently shady man. Jeff gets hired at Joe Exotic’s zoo. He seems to have a criminal past of some sort, but his role in this whole plot is too surreal to give away.
And then there’s Carole Baskin, head of non-profit organization Big Cat Rescue. She’s got a definite crazy cat lady energy, but doesn’t seem too bad—at first. Carole is perhaps the most enigmatic of the bunch. She’s not as immediately revolting as the other subjects, but there’s an air of uncertainty to her. Is it possible that she, like Joe, is just charismatic enough to get away with clearly suspicious behavior? Her’s is another strange and constantly shifting role in the narrative that’s impossible to describe without giving too much away.
The most normal? Mario Tabraue, whose life is directly compared to “Scarface,” as he was one of the biggest drug kingpins in Florida for a time. Mario is seemingly just a pretty chill guy who did his time and won his appeal, has a lot of money, and enjoys owning exotic animals. The least interesting and most relaxing subject in this documentary is a former coke kingpin. Let that one sink in.
All of these people soak up so much attention, as they are objectively fascinating and frightening, that it’s easy to forget about something: the animals. The doc series occasionally resets its focus to remind us there are consequences to this war of big cat enthusiasts, which not only include the suffering of people, but of the animals living in captivity in these roadside “sanctuaries.” While not critiquing the very idea of zoos or animal sanctuaries, the series reminds audiences that attractions run by people like Joe Exotic, Doc Antle and Jeff Lowe are not legitimate nor are they beneficial to animal conservation. They are sick parodies of such a cause.
The appeal and brilliance of “Tiger King” is something that can’t really be explained without simply summarizing the series and characters. There’s plenty of strange events, open-ended threads and complex psychologies to be dissected after viewing, and it’s definitely worth more than a single watch. However, the experience of witnessing these events and people rapidly unraveling can only be appreciated by actually watching it.
So for anyone out there who assumes life in the Midwest is boring, just watch “Tiger King.” These crazy rednecks know how to get down—they just don’t know when to stop.
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.