Documentarian Eric Goode enters the weird world of Joe Exotic – an all-American oddball with a mullet, two husbands, and his own private zoo housing hundreds of big cats.
After tapping into the true-crime zeitgeist with Making A Murderer, Abducted In Plain Sight and Don’t Fuck With Cats, Netflix has struck gold again with its latest what-the-hell-am-I-watching documentary series. Taking in everything from cats and cult-like figures to crooning country music, Tiger King makes for compulsively bonkers viewing, depicting whacked-out corners of weirdo America with an unflinching eye, and boasting tell-all interviews with complicit parties who seem to have no internal filter.
Where Making A Murderer was driven (and perhaps ultimately let down) by a compelling but unknowable central whodunnit, Tiger King is instead a sprawling portrait of America’s surprisingly numerous big cat owners, largely focusing on Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic – a gun-toting gay polygamist with a bleached mullet, piercings galore, and his own backwoods exotic animal park. Without a central narrative hook, Tiger King’s opening episodes feel a little directionless – but it remains utterly watchable thanks to the bizarre sights and ludicrous soundbites that arrive in rapid succession.
Beyond all the WTF revelations, the most impressive thing about Tiger King is how it moves past the weirdness.
Following Joe Exotic and his acolytes for seemingly years, documentarian Eric Goode (who sometimes appears in-frame, and co-directs with Rebecca Chaiklin) gets enviable access to his main subject – a vantage from which he’s able to share the sheer strangeness of Exotic housing vast numbers of big cats in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, the astonishing (often unjustified) loyalty and cult-like devotion of his central staff, and the narcissism that drives him to pursue power and celebrity at all costs. And there are other fascinating figures too – Goode and Chaiklin drawing well-considered comparisons between Exotic, intense ‘conservationist’ Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle (who has worrying Hollywood connections, and employs a harem of young women to work his higher-end facility with the hilarious acronym ’T.I.G.E.R.S.’), and Scarface-alike drug kingpin and exotic animal dealer Mario Tabraue.
And then there’s Carole Baskin. With her wardrobe of eye-popping cat-print clothes, immense internet following, and non-profit sanctuary Big Cat Rescue, she’s the other central figure of the series – Joe’s ultimate nemesis, who becomes a greater target of his barely-concealed rage the more she targets his zoo under animal rights offences. They’re the Batman and Joker of unhinged, big-cat-obsessed rural Americans – equals and opposites, Goode also gesturing towards the hypocrisy of Baskin owning her own big cat facility, staffed by an army of her devotees.
The broader Tiger King’s canvas becomes, the more those addictive questions begin to arise: why is Joe Exotic now in jail, and what did he do? Could Carole Baskin really be a murderer? And how are these animal ‘sanctuaries’ still legally operating? But beyond all the WTF revelations, the most impressive thing about Tiger King is how it moves past the weirdness. Goode peels back the trashy razzmatazz, uncovering the dangerous egos that drive a certain kind of person to try and own a slice of primal nature, and depicts the human tragedy (drug addiction, coercive control, and suicide) that splinters out from those possessive desires.
If you’re steeled for its depictions of animal cruelty (and some truly diabolical country music), Tiger King is another irresistibly bingeable Netflix documentary series.