Sam Brooks reviews The Tiger King and I, which does little to rectify the damage and distortion done by the monster Netflix hit.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness arrived at exactly the right time. People were shutting their doors, washing their hands and turning on their screens, and what was waiting there for them? A bleached-haired, fake-tanned man in a sparkly jacket, posing next to a tiger. Five hours and 40 minutes later, it was all anybody who had watched it wanted to talk about. How did he hook in three husbands? She definitely did it, right? And did he really sing those songs? (Emotional manipulation and charisma, probably not, and absolutely not.)
The weeks following Tiger King have been exhausting, frankly. Not just because of the state of the world right now, but because social media has chewed up and spat out every conceivable angle on the show. We’ve had a full cycle of memes and hot takes, and Donald Trump has even (jokingly?) said that he might pardon Joe Exotic, the titular morally toxic king. The consensus seems to have settled somewhere around the conflicted zone: that the series is an entertaining, but ultimately empty experience that also exploits or distorts many of its subjects. In some ways, Netflix doing its own after-show seems quaintly like old media. We’ve already dissected it in our bubbles, physical and virtual – why do we need the network to do it as well?
The advantage of this particular after-show is being able to check in on some of the more popular, and least controversial characters from the series and find out what they think of their newfound fame (or notoriety). These include Exotic’s ex-husband John Finlay, journalist-cum-cowboy Rick Kirkham and fellow big cat owners Jeff and Lauren Lowe. It poses some of the questions that audiences have been gleefully asking (“why did you go back after a tiger bit off your arm?” being a pertinent one) and serves as a payoff to the wildly popular series, filmed entirely after the show dropped – that is, filmed in quarantine.
It’s a savvy choice to get Joel McHale (The Soup, Community) to front it. He’s no hard-hitting journalist, but he seems genuinely curious about the lives of the people he’s interviewing, and injects the proceedings with enough snark that the audience doesn’t experience complete tonal whiplash from the original series. The only true misstep is when he suggests that his friend and Community co-star Ken Jeong should play trans man Saff (who was already misrepresented as a lesbian woman in the original series) in the inevitable dramatic adaptation, which shows McHale to be just as tone deaf as any other celebrity a few weeks into quarantine. You can’t help but wish someone with a bit more skin in the game was given the gig, but Netflix was never going to scrutinise its own golden goose (or tiger) too deeply.
That’s the crucial thing about The Tiger King and I. Not only is it a chance to wring the last bits of oil from the rag, it’s a chance for Netflix to do some image rehabilitation after the fact – to address topics that the original series didn’t, whether by design or by accident. It’s telling, and clearly intentional, that the after-show begins with the issue of animal cruelty, addressing it more directly than the original series ever did. McHale asks tiger handler Eric, one of the more sympathetic characters from the series, if any animal cruelty occurred at Joe Exotic’s tiger park. Eric’s answer? Yup, absolutely. To see Eric get emotional about the animals and the way they were treated puts a human face on the issue. It’s sad that we need a human face at all, but it’s revealing that in the first eight minutes of The Tiger King and I we get more compassion for those animals than we got in seven hours of the original series.
At the centre of The Tiger King and I are two giant holes: Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. Exotic’s absence is understandable, given that he’s in jail and will likely remain there for the rest of his life, according to several of his former employees and confidants. Baskin’s absence is more complicated, and tells us something about the show’s harmful approach to its talent. It’s a fairly damning indictment that the person who’s done worst from the Tiger King phenomenon is Baskin herself. There are now countless memes about her allegedly murdering her ex-husband, some of which are gleefully shared here, in another tone-deaf move from McHale. Going by online chatter – and a recent opinion poll – she’s more hated than anybody else in the series, even Exotic himself. As a documentary, Tiger King is hardly unique in this respect, but it’s worth pointing out that it made a martyr out of an unambiguous villain, and a gargoyle out of a woman who, while not morally spotless, seems to be guilty of little more than harmless eccentricity.
There’s only so much The Tiger King and I can do to paper over the damage done to everyone in the series. While McHale never asks what effect this newfound notoriety has had on the documentary’s participants, there’s only so many times you can hear not just one, but multiple interviewees insist they were not on meth before you start to question the decision-making behind the original series. After McHale jokes about both John Finlay’s missing teeth and his missing shirt in his documentary appearances, Finlay replies frustratedly: “I was portrayed as a drugged-out hillbilly. That was not me then. At that time, I was four to five years clean.” Too many people are put in the position of having to “well, actually” their own existence, and it never feels anything less than gross. It’s a welcome move to give more weight to the animal cruelty issue and to try to give us a fuller picture of some of the people involved, but The Tiger King and I was never going to go truly deep while fronted by Joel McHale, a 1.5K-faved tweet in human form. With him, snark always takes precedence over sympathy.
Tiger King isn’t the first Netflix docuseries to go huge, but it’s the first to achieve such a perfect storm of success. It scratched the true crime itch, which is a complicated brew of prurience and exploitation at the best of times. It dropped during a period when there was nothing else dominating screens, something Netflix has capitalised on (see: The Witcher, You) to huge success in the past. But perhaps most importantly, it gave people something to feel superior to. There’s a dark, uncomfortable classism to Tiger King that hooked us all in. We want to see how the other half lives, and in this case, Tiger King gave us a group of people who were every other half you could imagine, offering them up on a platter to be made fun of. The after-show tries to mitigate some of that (and it’s unsurprising that none of the documentary’s makers are credited or involved in any way), but it can only do so much when it’s bred from that same toxic piece of entertainment.
Nearly everybody involved seems conflicted, if not outright regretful, about their involvement in the documentary. Considering how shallow that product was, and how little that’s meaningful has apparently come out of it, you can’t help but wonder what the point of it all was. Tigers remain in captivity, as living, breathing, endangered MacGuffins. Joe Exotic remains in jail, more famous than he ever was and contentedly crowdfunding his legal battles. Everybody else continues to live their lives, a bit more exposed than before. The content machines keep churning.
You can watch The Tiger King and I on Netflix now.