Joe Exotic of "Tiger King"
Joe Exotic of "Tiger King"
Netflix
By Bonnie Stiernberg / March 25, 2020 9:10 am

Tiger King doesn’t waste any time letting us know what we’re in for: “Animal people are nuts, man,” a man tells the camera in the Netflix docuseries’s opening seconds. “And I might be one of them people, I don’t know. But they’re all half out-there, man. They’re crazy.”

“The monkey people are a little bit different,” another says, matter-of-factly. “They’re kind of strange. But the big cat people are back-stabbing pieces of shit.”

Somehow, this is both deeply accurate and a total understatement.

The seven-episode series is ostensibly about Joe Exotic, the eccentric owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, and his years-long feud with Carole Baskin, the owner of the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary trying to shut him down. But it is also, it turns out, about the following: murder-for-hire, a polygamist cult, a missing millionaire husband whom some believe was fed to a tiger, a former drug kingpin who claims to be the inspiration for Scarface, an employee who gets her arm ripped off by a tiger and returns to work a week later, a failed reality show, arson, a tragic suicide, a 2016 presidential campaign, a surprising amount of singing, embezzlement, a bid for governor of Oklahoma and an undercover FBI agent.

It’s wild (no pun intended), and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time, as we all find ourselves in our own form of captivity, stuck at home under quarantine and desperate for entertainment. And let me tell you, if Tiger King is anything, it’s entertaining.

There are moments of comedy, like when another big cat enthusiast boasts, “I’ve been doing this 20 years, never even been bit” and the show immediately cuts to a shot of him being nipped by a pouncing tiger moments later, or when a handyman waits one perfectly timed beat after being chewed out by Exotic (who sports a platinum-blonde mullet) before muttering “Goldilocks bitch” under his breath. At one point, Exotic drives with a tiger sitting in the front seat while he sings along to his own music — yes, in addition to overseeing the care of 200 tigers and running for office, he’s also an aspiring country singer — and the animal turns away from him and looks directly into the camera, almost like he’s Jim Halpert on The Office throwing us one of his best “Can you believe this shit?” glances. There are, of course, plenty of moments that are sad and disturbing, too. But most of all, there are moments when you’ll find yourself simply marveling at the fact that these are all real people and not a bunch of Coen Brothers characters.

The truth is, a Hollywood screenwriter could only dream of writing something like this. At first, it appears that Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin are classic foils — him a flashy redneck who loves explosives, her a genteel hippie with a seemingly endless amount of time and money to devote to saving big cats — but we come to find out they’re more similar than we’ve been led to believe. Both charge admission to their parks and seem to get off on stoking the fire of their rivalry to rile up their respective fanbases. There’s an entire episode dedicated to the (surprisingly plausible!) theory that Baskin had her former husband killed, which if true would mean they’re both big fans of murder-for-hire. And they both have a deep affinity for low-budget music videos about tigers. (Actual YouTube comment on one: “Good effort, bad execution.”)

But while Exotic and Baskin are both strong enough personalities to reel in their own army of followers and spouses (Exotic is, at one point, married to two men, while Baskin’s current and third husband calls her “the Mother Theresa of cats” and posed for their wedding photo in a leash), Tiger King still raises serious issues about the treatment of big cats — and exotic animals in general — in this country.

It’s hard to not to cringe when we see another private zoo owner say it takes $10,000 a year to feed a single tiger and then cut to our old pal Joe boasting that he can feed a tiger for $3,000 a year by feeding them roadkill and expired meat from Walmart. We see the way his cats all swarm when it’s feeding time; they’re hungry. The documentary also sheds light on the way tigers are trafficked throughout the country, illegally bred and pimped out for “cub petting” photo ops.

There’s food for thought in Tiger King, but it comes wrapped in the craziest story you’ll ever hear. Each episode ramps up the absurdity, revealing some other completely outrageous detail that could have its own docuseries devoted to it entirely, presented offhandedly as if we all have traded tigers for magic lessons from a local 12-year-old or used the rare animals to lure in women for threesomes before. (Seemingly every tiger owner is super into threesomes.) It’d be fascinating even under normal circumstances, but in the times we’re currently living in, it’s a godsend — a glorious seven-hour distraction that delivers on its promise to be nuts.