tiger king
Joe Exotic and one of his big cats | Netflix
Joe Exotic and one of his big cats | Netflix
Entertainment

'Tiger King' Is Netflix's Most Binge-able, and Most Insane, Docuseries Ever

It takes a certain kind of person to get into the exotic animal business. Most of us (average, staid, unexciting) people, if we invite an animal into our home, will pick something normal and vetted, like a dog or a cat or a small bird or a turtle. But there are those out there who feel the call for something different: They're the Russians on Instagram with the pumas and the caracals, the beach bums who walk boardwalks with leashed monkeys on their shoulders, the folks who, just because they feel like it, buy up a few acres in the middle of the country and start a tiger zoo. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, the new docuseries on Netflix, tells the story of the latter sort, and proves that, a lot of the time, the people are sometimes even more interesting -- and more dangerous -- than the four-legged apex predators they build their lives around. 

You might remember Joe Exotic. If you don't know him from his tiger zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, you may remember him from the time he ran for president in 2015 as an independent -- he made it onto a segment of John Oliver's Last Week Tonight. That was pretty weird, but nowhere near as insane as the full story behind Joe and his over 200 tigers actually is. Tiger King, which consumed five years of documentarians Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin's lives, gives us the full story: How Joe went from animal enthusiast to zookeeper, to participant in a barely legal racket that impacts thousands of captive big cats living in America alone, and finally to a nearly broken man who resorted to taking out a hit on the woman whom he considered his ultimate nemesis. 

Self-proclaimed Tiger King Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Schreibvogel, later Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was the owner of the G.W. Zoo, a private zoo that drew crowds with the promise of up-close encounters with real live tigers and opportunities, at a premium price, to get a photo taken with their adorable little cubs. Joe and his employees worked closely with the tigers, stepping into their cages and interacting with them on a daily basis. That might seem absolutely insane (and it is) but the concept of roughhousing with a fully grown tiger ends up looking like the most natural thing in the world once you've gotten through the rest of the wild stuff this show has to offer. 

Joe, who posts videos of himself every day swanning around his zoo and playing with his cats, ignites the ire of Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue, a "sanctuary" for exotic cats in Tampa, Florida whose cats have been rescued from the pet trade, circuses, and zoos like Joe's. Naturally, Carole sets Joe in her sights, protesting his zoo and doing everything she can to put him out of business. Joe retaliates by threatening her almost daily in his videos, cussing her out whenever she's mentioned by zoo staff, and, by the end of the season, actually paying a hitman to kill her. The animal rights angle to it all -- and there is one, layered into short segments showing the cats pacing in their too-small cages, pulling at their chains, and moaning as their newborn cubs are taken from them to be acclimated to humans as early as possible -- is secondary to the sheer madness that ensues when a bunch of filthy-rich narcissists bump up against each other a few too many times. 

tiger king
Joe Exotic, a tiger, and one of Joe's flashy shirts | Netflix

Most docuseries on Netflix -- hell, most shows on Netflix, period -- suffer from "Netflix bloat." A 13-hour series can usually be shortened to half that length; a three-hour miniseries would do better as a 90-minute feature. Tiger King's episodes are less than 50 minutes long and there are only seven, which makes watching them in one sitting a doable concept on a boring weekend in quarantine. And you will watch them all in one sitting, since each episode ends with a climactic cliffhanger teasing the insane new twists coming in the next one. The show's best "character" is Joe's former video producer named Rick Kirkham, who chain-smokes in a black cowboy hat as his deep, nasally voice provides a steady drip of insane gossip. 

The other great thing about the show is there is no hero. You might think you know who it is, but by the middle of the series, everyone looks nutso, and the villains of the first few episodes almost become the victims by the time the finale rolls around. What Tiger King does best is illustrate how good intentions can turn into obsessions, how personal vendettas can take over your mind, and the dangers of people who inexorably draw others close to them, spinning them inexorably into their lives. Everyone loves throwing around the word "chaotic" nowadays, but nothing but Tiger King has ever come close to the full, mythological meaning behind that ancient nether abyss of infinite madness. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.