For a documentarian, a larger than life big cat collector who goes by “Joe Exotic” has to both be a total dream and narrative nightmare. As evidenced by the fact that he chose a name for himself that belongs more on a pack of gas station “vitamins” than to a person, the Oklahoman zookeeper is a deliberately larger-than-life figure who’s extremely self-aware about the character he’s building. He is, as he says in a commercial for his failed 2016 presidential campaign (yes), “gay…broke as hell…[and has] a judgment against me from some bitch down in Florida.” Over seven episodes, Netflix’s “Tiger King” digs into all the above, most notably his relationship with the “bitch” in question: Carol Baskin, the animal activist owner of Big Cat Rescue and Joe Exotic’s longtime object of disdain. Though the story begins with their respective love for their animals, “Tiger King” quickly devolves into the complex and downright bizarre tale of the rivalry between Joe Exotic and Baskin, the outsize characters of the big cat collecting world, and the dangerous cults of personality that fuel all of the above.
Oh, and did I mention that Joe Exotic was arrested last year for attempted murder-for-hire? Because yes, yes he was.
These are the kinds of “wait, what?!” twists that await you in “Tiger King,” which has so much material it barely knows what to do with it all. As a result, “Tiger King” jumps around from year to year more jerkily than it might have with a more focused storyline; it’s often hard to tell exactly when someone is giving an interview, and therefore what kind of context they’re working with when answering a question. As the series progresses, you can practically feel the filmmakers’ astonishment at all the strange stories they’re uncovering every time Joe Exotic or one of his equally wild zookeeping peers opens their mouth. Sometimes, the producers even leave in the baffled interjections from interviewers as their subjects talk openly about everything they’ve been witness to over the years.
Every episode — whether about Joe Exotic’s political aspirations or the suspicions that Baskin fed a husband to her tigers (really!) — has more than enough material to fuel its own entire miniseries. By and large, “Tiger King” depends on Joe Exotic’s own entertaining philosophy: come for the big animals, stay for the personalities wrangling them. For those who love Netflix’s particular flavor of true crime and docuseries, which depend heavily on wild characters and addictive pacing in order to keep a couchbound audience entertained, “Tiger King” will undoubtedly scratch a particular itch.
By far the most complex and disturbing stories “Tiger King” tells are about how men like Joe Exotic and fellow big cat enthusiast Doc Antle manipulate vulnerable people into completely devoting themselves to their causes — which, ostensibly, are big cats, but are actually Joe Exotic and Doc Antle themselves. Antle’s big cat compound depends on a steady flow of desperate women who turn over their entire previous identities in favor of a more overtly lascivious one that Antle crafts for them. Joe Exotic, who freely admits to taking cues from Antle, collects young men and makes them dependent on him in order to make them stay. The way in which”Tiger King” lays out these perverse power dynamics is fascinating, revealing, and extremely upsetting. It’s clear that they believe that, being able to dominate animals that should by all rights be at the top of the food chain, they should therefore be able to dominate anything.
Men like Joe Exotic are, by design, undeniably riveting personalities with far more to him than the big cats they depend upon. And yet, as “Joe Exotic TV” producer Rick Kirkham puts it with a weary exhale of cigarette smoke, men like Joe Exotic also “wanted to be famous more than anything in the world.” After all is said and done, the messy yet compelling “Tiger King” will at least accomplish that.
“Tiger King” is now streaming on Netflix.