Review: Netflix’s “Tiger King” takes you on a crazy ride


Courtesy of Netflix

Andrew Lang

In a world that feels unreal amidst the COVID-19 isolation, Netflix stepped up to remind us that the world was always crazy with its documentary series “Tiger King.”

“Tiger King” is the story of several tiger and big cat facilities and the fascinating people who own them. The story primarily focuses on Joe Exotic, a gay polygamist who ran for president, among other things, and his battle with arch-rival and animal activist Carole Baskin.

The feud between the two is the driving narrative of the story. While the documentary takes a detour diving down a number of different topics, this feud is the main story that the story is built around.

The show also delves into the mysterious disappearance of Baskins’ ex-husband, delving into theories that Baskins fed him to the tigers they cared for.

It also touches on the lifestyle of another tiger owner, Doc Antle, and implies that the way he operates his zoo and the relationships he has with his female workers functions as a pseudo-cult.

The star of the documentary and the most entertaining person in it is Joe Exotic. Exotic is so outrageous, it doesn’t seem like his story could possibly be true. He is such a built-for-television personality in pretty much all the weirdest ways. His story too is designed perfectly in terms of the twists and turns it takes for this kind of dramatized documentary presentation.

While Exotic may be the star, almost every person interviewed is fascinating. Between Ron Kirkham, a blunt reality show producer who was filming a reality show about Joe Exotic, to a real life “Scarface” style former convicted criminal in Mario Tabraue who also owns big cats, it’s a ride to get to know everyone involved in this story.

Despite the tigers being the through line for all these colorful individuals, the tigers are definitely not the focus. The focus is primarily on the personal drama around the people who own and operate these zoos and sanctuaries. The tiger zoos and habitats the people operate are essentially just a backdrop in terms of the documentary.

The best way to describe this show is that it feels like you are watching an episode of “Jerry Springer” except instead of relationship drama, the show is full of tigers, guns, some meth and a murder-for-hire plot.

To put it another way, when a zoo worker loses an arm to a tiger, by the end of the show, you won’t remember that because it seemed like one of the more normal occurrences that happened.

The show at times moves too quickly for its own good. There is so much crazy that happens in this show that some objectively fascinating things just get glazed over. One of Joe Exotic’s employees lost both of his legs in a zipline accident, but there are so many other ludicrous things the documentary needs to get to that the fact of how he lost his legs is just mentioned, and then the show quickly moves on.

The show has developed a close following, sparking all sorts of commentary from memes to tweets to news stories and everything in between, both from watchers of the show as well as participants who shared their own takes on how their stories were represented.

Joe Exotic seemingly won over much of the audience this show developed, but there are really no heroes in this story. Nearly everyone involved in this story loses something, whether that be their reputation, their freedom or even their life.

Ultimately though, “Tiger King” will keep you enthralled for better or worse. You may not understand quite why you watch it, but, one thing is for sure, that once you start watching, you won’t be able to look away.

Illustration by Ariel Landry
Illustration by Ariel Landry