Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
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It’s time to take a step back and reflect on what happened at the end of March 2020. I’m talking about Tiger King, the Netflix documentary that became a streaming sensation.

Tiger King attracted 19 million viewers during the 10 days following its release March 20. By April 22, 64 million Netflix subscribers had watched the series. Many journalists noted ironically how a series on tigers in captivity benefited from the captive audience of viewers sheltering in their homes to avoid catching COVID-19.

If you don’t know what Tiger King is about and don’t care, congratulations to you. You have probably spent six hours of your life on more worthy pursuits. At the beginning of April, I’ll admit I succumbed to the social media buzz and watched two episodes of Tiger King before I gave up. Despite various explanations and justifications, the show’s interest somehow escaped me. 

I just watched the entire series to see if my initial reaction had changed. There’s no denying that Joseph Schreibvogel, otherwise known as Joe Exotic, the Tiger King, makes for eye-catching TV. In the genre of true-crime investigations, the documentary sets out to explain how Exotic, a self-described gun-toting, gay redneck with a mullet, went from being the king of his own Oklahoma animal park to being a federal prisoner, charged with a murder-for-hire plot directed at Carole Baskin, the owner of an animal sanctuary in Tampa, Fla.

Going back in time, we see Exotic at his flamboyant prime, a showman in the line of P. T. Barnum, milking the public for hundreds of dollars apiece to pet baby tigers. When Baskin uses her network of animal rights supporters to shut down his lucrative business, Exotic descends tragically into paranoia while grasping for money and notoriety.

During my second viewing, the shameless profiteering from glorious animals created by God but housed in substandard conditions remained hard to take. It also was difficult to watch cult-like leaders of private zoos exploit their hapless employees. Tiger King revels in displaying a sleazy society where even the seemingly upright, such as Baskin, live under a cloud of criminal suspicion. If nothing else, the series underscores the fact that people are depraved and in need of a Savior.

By Tiger King’s seventh and final episode, I understood better from an artistic standpoint what bothered me about the series. While it claims to be a documentary investigating a crime, Tiger King is closer to reality TV, in which the plot is carefully scripted to bring out the maximum number of twists and turns over the maximum number of episodes. By episode four, I realized I had stopped taking notes. I was profoundly bored; the entire story could easily have been told in under two hours.

Like ventilators, N95 masks, and social distancing, Tiger King will be tied nonetheless to our collective memory of the COVID-19 pandemic. But remember too that a show about tigers should be anything but crass and boring. (Netflix, Rated TV-MA for language, smoking, and animal harm)

About the Author

Otto Selles teaches French at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and attends Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.

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