As “Tiger King” itself notes in its Season 2 premiere, during an opening sequence delivered with all the melodramatic gravitas of a grim thriller, Netflix dropped “Tiger King” at precisely the right moment for it to become the cultural sensation it did. By March 19 of 2020, millions of people were stuck at home waiting out the first wave of the novel coronavirus, not realizing that life was about to change for a much longer time than it takes to perfect sourdough starter. For anyone else starved for something besides a deadly virus to focus on, something as flashy and splashy as “Tiger King” provided the perfect kind of distraction. The interwoven tales of warring Oklahoma big cat enthusiasts “Joe Exotic,” Carole Baskin, and the wild cast of characters surrounding them proved irresistible. That the show wasn’t particularly good or well-made didn’t really matter. “Tiger King,” in all its tacky glory, was entertainment in the purest sense. In that moment, that’s all it had to be.
Watching the new installments of Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode’s series now, in a world far removed from the one in which it first premiered, is surreal. The first episode almost entirely deals with the effect “Tiger King” had on its subjects, most of whom apparently spent the darkest days of the pandemic ignoring it completely and charging crowds of fans for selfies. Baskin went on “Dancing With the Stars” and uploaded dozens of videos of herself reading old diary entries to discourage internet sleuths from digging into the cold case of her second husband’s disappearance — a gambit that has, unsurprisingly, backfired spectacularly as people trawl through her every video for more clues. Meanwhile, Joe Exotic is still in prison after failing to get a presidential pardon from Donald Trump before he left office, but continues to make righteous vows of vengeance over the phone against all those who have ever wronged him.
It’s undeniably compelling to watch these already lurid characters react to their sudden fame, even if in a perverse sort of way. In a standout scene, Joe Exotic sympathizers mill about the Capitol early on January 6 of this year in hopes of getting Trump’s attention for a pardon, only to have the protestors reject them first. (As they leave D.C., one gets an alert about the developing chaos happening behind them and sadly voices the hope that their “PARDON JOE EXOTIC” banner at least got some attention.) And seeing how the sensationalized series encouraged some of its worst actors to double down, knowing that doing so will feed their rabid new fanbase, is more illuminating than the series itself seems to realize as it thrusts them back into the warm embrace of the spotlight.
After that meta first episode, though, this new season of “Tiger King” reveals the show for what it truly is, especially as it haphazardly explores the disappearance of Don Lewis. While it initially lucked into a charismatic cast that captured the nation’s attention at a truly unique moment in history, at its core, “Tiger King” is a middling true-crime series on a streaming service chock full of the same, that furthermore lacks the attention span to dig deeper into the crucial context of its many, many stories. Today, many of us are less confined to our homes, or at least have figured out better uses of our time since the extraordinary circumstances of last spring became rather more ordinary. Now that the circus has moved on, “Tiger King” is just no longer half as compelling a sideshow as it once was.