In late February, Netflix started listing the most popular offerings of the day on its homepage, ranking the Top 10 movies/series in the country. And for almost every day since its March 20 debut, the documentary miniseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has been in either the No. 1 spot or close behind. By some metrics, it’s the most popular current show on TV. It’s become fodder for late-night hosts looking for fresh content while sheltering in place. If you are reading this, chances are very good that you have heard of it.
If you haven’t seen it (or just need a refresher): the series is about a man named Joseph Maldonado-Passage who founded a private wildlife zoo in Oklahoma, christened himself Joe Exotic, became regionally renowned for his outsize personality and PR antics, entered into a three-person marriage with two other men decades younger than himself, picked fights with animal-rights activists, ran for president, starred in his own online TV show, and was eventually arrested and imprisoned for contracting the murder of a woman who runs a big-cat rescue sanctuary in Florida. There’s a suicide, wildlife trafficking, crystal meth, and homemade country music. Someone loses an arm.
Superficially, it’s easy to see why the show is a hit. Its lurid story is designed to appeal to the same shock-consumption impulse that fuels tabloid magazines and gossip blogs, and many of the people it profiles are what you would charitably describe as “colorful.” But what’s missing from the cultural discussion is the distinction between form and content. That is, the focus has been on the concepts and ideas floating around in the story of Tiger King, and not on the way the story is actually being told. And the way it’s being told is shamelessly manipulative, narratively incompetent, confoundingly vague, and devoid of any apparent knowledge or concern about its power and responsibility as a purveyor of truth. Everyone loves it.
Tiger King is not the first pop-cultural sensation to try and turn this mess into something bigger. That would be last year’s true-crime podcast Over My Dead Body: Joe Exotic, where the story was reported and presented by journalist Robert Moor. (In a savvy marketing move, the original podcast has now been retitled Joe Exotic: Tiger King, with the old feed scrapped so that episodes can be re-released weekly along with supplemental “bonus” material.)
The original podcast and accompanying feature story are familiar longform reporting in the second decade of the new millennium: sprawling, kind of weird, and connected to murder. Your enjoyment mileage will vary based on how much you like those things, but it’s clear, when listening to or reading the 2019 works, that Moor is out to tell a story, and that he’s going to do his best to wrangle a thorny narrative into something understandable. Netflix’s series, though, doesn’t have those kinds of goals. Co-directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, Tiger King isn’t so much about telling a story as it is about wandering from place to place, person to person, gawking at things but never really coming up with a coherent thesis about them.
Part of the problem is that Goode and Chaiklin didn’t have this kind of product in mind when they got started. Goode, an entrepreneur and property owner who founded a preservation group called the Turtle Conservancy, originally wanted to make an exposé about people who kept exotic wildlife as pets. He partnered with Chaiklin, who co-directed documentaries about the 2000 U.S. presidential election, the war on drugs, and Occupy Wall Street, and they started investigating people in Florida who were buying and selling exotic animals. (At some point, the project also employed the Safdie brothers; the mind reels.) Goode briefly appears on camera for parts of the first episode of Tiger King to summarize this original intent before noting that the focus shifted when he and Chaiklin discovered the personality-driven subculture around raising and selling big cats.
Such shifts in direction are completely normal in any creative process, and probably even more likely to happen in documentary storytelling, where discoveries can so often lead filmmakers to new conclusions or ideas. But it says something that Goode and Chaiklin didn’t set out to make a film about something as much as they wanted a film about some “thing”—to just capture or illustrate this illicit world in a general way so that they might see it shut down.
And they did want to see it shut down. Goode founded a wildlife conservancy, after all, and has said of the series that “the real takeaway should be to give your money to conservation programs around the world that are really working hard to save tigers in their range countries and not give your money to sanctuaries, which are really, effectively just caging tigers and cats.” Yet that information isn’t anywhere in the series, nor does Goode discuss it on camera or even in narration. That is: he operated from a certain set of beliefs, then created an ostensibly truthful product that belied those beliefs. Why?
The filmmaking itself is a reflection of this kind of insecurity of ideals; of having goals but not tactics. The show constantly feels like a trailer for itself: it both assumes you do not know the story of Joe Exotic, but also that you already know everything about this, or that at least you’d be happy to glean the high points from some montages. In addition to stylistic stealing that almost feels legally actionable—the thrumming music lifted from The Thin Blue Line, the robotic voice saying you’re getting a collect call from jail that is copied and pasted from Serial so blatantly that somebody should be getting royalty checks—there is no real attempt made to give the viewer any ground to stand on, or any understanding of what is happening and when.
The first interview of the series gives the game away. It’s a standard-looking seated interview with a man named Rick Kirkham, who says, “Where do you wanna start? I guess at the beginning somewhere? It was a crazy beginning. Crazy.” When asked off camera (presumably by Goode?) what was the beginning, Kirkham just laughs a little, at which point montages and talking heads start to share how weird the people in the private-zoo industry can be. Then we find out that someone calling himself the “tiger king” is in jail for trying to have a woman killed, and we see footage of a man identified as Joe Exotic both in jail and out of jail, both behind bars and seated for interviews. As for that elusive but enticing “beginning,” we never find out. This kind of question-and-forget-the-answer moment happens several times an episode. There are seven episodes.
Around here is when we find out from an interviewed staffer from Joe’s zoo that “from the start of the day to the end of the day, (Joe) filmed everything.” This immediately calls into question everything we’re seeing, and will see: how much of this is Goode and Chaiklin’s footage, and how much came from Joe? Why is there no delineation between the two sources? Why are no dates given for any of the footage? Some of it clearly originated with Joe—personal mugging for the camera, no interviewers or professional equipment in sight—but how much? Some of the clips are from music videos Joe made for his country songs about tigers, though Joe didn’t even write or record that music himself—but why does the series never mention this? Did Goode and Chaiklin not know, or not care? Did they just want to play Joe’s hobbies for laughs? To what extent does that weaken their claims of investigative prowess? Later on in the series, we find out that huge archives of footage of Joe were lost in a fire on his property. How did this footage survive, though? Why are some scenes filmed with hidden cameras when the people being interviewed are willing subjects who sat for several other interviews during the show? And who was wearing the hidden cameras? On, and on, and on.
This is also when Tiger King introduces Joe’s longtime animosity toward a woman named Carol Baskin, who runs a facility in Florida called Big Cat Rescue, dedicated to housing exotic wildlife that have been rescued from places like private homes or circuses and giving them a place to live out their days. Carol does not like Joe’s zoo practices, and Joe threatens to harm Carol if he ever sees her. These are two very different reactions one can have to a disagreement, but Goode/Chaikin position Joe and Carol as equal but opposite, both unhealthily obsessed with big cats in ultimately comparable ways. Carol Baskin is the woman that Joe Exotic is eventually imprisoned for attempting to have killed, but Tiger King isn’t focused on that, or on the legal battle, as much as it is on the people as characters, watching them tilt at each other.
Toward the end of the episode, we get a “4 Years Later” card—later than when? Are we back to present day? We can’t be, because we’ve already gone 5 years back, and coming 4 years back to today would mean we started in the future, so we’re still in the past, but how far? Etc.—anyway, it’s 4 years later, and Joe is now in jail. He angrily says over the prison phone, “Let me show and tell the whole thing. Because then you’ll get it.” But we, as viewers, have just spent 45 minutes having different clips and sound bites and factoids thrown at us, and we have as yet learned nothing that we didn’t know in the first few seconds (or couldn’t have gleaned from reading Netflix’s summary). It’s like running a Moebius strip through a film projector. We’re always moving, and we’re always here.
I keep coming back to the fact that Goode didn’t want to make this series—at least not like this. He’s admitted that the general caginess of people like Joe makes it hard to get access to their worlds, so Goode downplayed his conservationist efforts, which he now seems to regret: “I always wished there was sort of the Michael Moore moment, like in Bowling for Columbine, where he really confronts Charlton Heston and Charlton Heston kicks him out of his property. … I always wanted to confront these guys at some point: ‘Are you really exploiting these animals? Is this really something you should be doing?’ We always felt that we had to keep the door open.”
But later in that same interview, Goode says that he did his best to confront not only Joe, but Carol: “I always asked the question to Carole Baskin: ‘Carole, why not humanely euthanize these animals? If you don’t think these big cats, lions, tigers, and leopards should be in cages, why let them suffer in a cage?’ And she would say, ‘Oh, I can’t play God.’ Then I would say to her, ‘You are playing God. You’re making a decision.’ I struggled with all of it.”
Goode’s inability (or unwillingness) to discern any difference between a man who paid for murder and the woman he tried to have killed is disconcerting, to say the least. This is probably why the series spends an entire episode on the details of the death of Carol’s former husband, going so far as to let Joe and other private-zoo owners posit on camera that Carol murdered the man and then fed him to the tigers in her sanctuary. Goode doesn’t present any evidence for this, or even mount a convincing argument that something untoward might have happened. Rather, it’s as if he’s just happy to have the ammunition, and he doesn’t mind firing a few more shots with it. Somebody says Carol killed her ex, so let’s hear them out. Joe pretends to be a music star, so let’s showcase it. There’s even a non sequitur in a later episode featuring a supporting character riding a jetski to “Eye of the Tiger,” and it’s impossible to pretend the segment is included for any reason other than encouraging the viewer to laugh at the juxtaposition of this person and this song. It’s just arbitrary and cruel.
The directors’ scattershot approach to what passes for filmmaking feels like what Stephen Colbert’s old Colbert Report character described as “truthiness” when he, as a fake news anchor, promised viewers: “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” There are no revelations or insights here, just targets. Everyone here is fair game. Over the bloated, meandering length of the series, Goode reveals himself to be the one thing he claims to hate the most: a hunter.