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‘Tiger King’ Doesn’t Deserve Our Undivided Attention (Column)

The Netflix docuseries indulges true crime's worst instincts.

Tiger King
Courtesy of NETFLIX

In its last 10 minutes, after almost seven hours of salacious rumor-mongering and shameless gawking at misfortune, “Tiger King” makes a fleeting attempt at imparting a noble message. “Nobody wins,” says former animal keeper Saff, who lost an arm while tending to a tiger before returning to work less than a week later. “Everyone involved is a so-called animal advocate, [but] not a single animal benefited from this war.” The music starts to swell as footage of happier times and galloping tigers goes into slow motion. “We’ve lost sight of what really matters here,” insists Joshua Dial, former campaign manager for Joe Exotic’s presidential run. “And that’s the conservation and protection of the species of this planet.”

That sentiment is all fine and good — but it has no basis in the reality of “Tiger King,” a messy and opportunistic docuseries that’s highlighted the worst of what true crime can be and do.

In the three weeks since its release — yes, it’s somehow only been three weeks — “Tiger King” has become a relentless cultural obsession. It’s red meat that, for a nation now particularly bored and craving an obsession with anything other than the increasingly dire news, is particularly ripe for tearing apart. Whether on late night TV or Cardi B’s Instagram, “Tiger King” has officially become inescapable. By the time it reached the White House press briefing room in the form of a New York Post reporter asking if President Trump might consider granting Joe Exotic a pardon (a truly cursed and dystopian moment), “Tiger King” had already had nine lives on the internet, where any scrap of information about it was guaranteed to go viral. (The only saving grace of the whole mess is that it’s happening six months before Halloween, so maybe, just maybe, we’ll be spared the rash of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin couples costumes.) 

This trajectory falls right in line with what my Variety colleagues predicted would happen with “Tiger King” before it even came out, as they all insisted that it was primed to become “A Thing.” So I checked it out, shrugged, gave it a middling review, and tried to move on. But I really should’ve known better given the track record of other Netflix docuseries, which could (and probably do) have their own Netflix category along the lines of “too crazy to be true — or is it?!” Netflix’s track record with shows about true crime (see: “Making a Murderer”) and wild cults of personality (see: “Wild Wild Country”) is that they balloon into pop culture phenomena that flood the entertainment news cycle for a few weeks before fading from view to let the next circus roll into town. “Tiger King,” which manages to combine both those genres into a single disgusting gumbo in which the worst players rise to the top, was destined to follow suit, nationwide quarantine or no. But it’s especially frustrating to watch “Tiger King” make its staggering climb in popularity when, as I concluded when I first watched the series, it’s just not very good. 

“Tiger King,” directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, meanders from story to story, making the audience stare in slack-jawed wonder at the characters it’s portraying as if they’re also feral animals in a zoo. It’s rarely clear when participants are giving interviews, a crucial component of a series that takes place over several tumultuous years. It’s so fascinated by the huge personalities of people like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle that it only glancingly mentions the compelling evidence that they use their magnetism to subjugate vulnerable people. Overwhelmed by the constant twists and turns of the lives they were observing, Goode and Chaiklin lost the plot so many times that they ended up making the series less journalistic than a vicious spectator sport in which the players are poor workers and the abusive narcissists who exploit them. If the series was ever supposed to be about the exploitation of captive animals in the United States, it abandoned that mission within 10 minutes of meeting Joe Exotic, whose explicit goal in life was to get famous at all costs — and now, thanks to “Tiger King” and the constantly churning news cycle surrounding it, he is.

At such an awful time in the world, when dumb pleasure is scarce and sorely needed, it’s not in anyone’s best interest to be a jerk about benign things that can distract people for a minute. But “Tiger King” isn’t benign. It’s an opportunistic grab at relevance that fails to shed any light on its subjects because it’s far too busy gaping at them. Showing their lives with an eye towards entertainment is an understandable instinct; it would be much harder to grab this much attention without some degree of compelling storytelling. And yet the way in which “Tiger King” goes on autopilot, indulging stereotypes and flattening complex events into titillating bites, turns everything it touches into a joke. This would be bad enough were it a scripted show, but “Tiger King” is about real people, real tragedies, real abuse and harm done in the name of fame and fortune. Telling these stories responsibly might have been more a bummer, but it would have, at the very least, been more humane.