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Arts & Culture Culture

The Cultural Rubbernecking of “Tiger King”

Most of us are familiar with the phenomena of a highway drive, interrupted by the scene  of an unfortunate car crash on the road’s side. Perhaps the vehicle is enveloped in flames or it has paved its own way off the road, destroying the high grass beneath it. In any case, the crash is an interruption of the monotony of our highway drive. Despite the pain and misfortune depicted, we are captivated by the spectacle alongside us. 

Such is the experience of watching Netflix’s most recent hit, Tiger King, which premiered in mid-March, quickly streaming on nearly 35 million screens. The series follows the orbit of Joe Exotic, an eccentric private zoo owner in Oklahoma. Alongside Exotic’s bleached mullet and sequined jackets are his staff, portrayed as a band of misfits—each somehow beholden to Exotic and this dangerous livelihood. 

Throughout its seven episodes, the series introduces another exotic zoo owner in South Carolina, Doc Antle, his bushy ponytail draping the back of his yoga-practicing, rotund frame. And there’s Carole Baskin, a self-proclaimed animal rights activist and the owner of a tiger sanctuary in South Florida. Baskin is presented as Exotic’s flower-crown-wearing, leopard-print-draped, wealthy nemesis. While following her efforts to have Exotic’s zoo shuttered, we come across fraudulent investors, criminal informants, an alleged spousal murder, a drug smuggler, and a dramatic assassination plot. 

But all these elements, though true, feel so forcedly theatrical, and it remains disappointedly unclear: what is the point of Tiger King?

Tiger King is a buffet of human suffering, poverty porn with tigers pacing in the background. Over here is a tragic crystal meth addiction. Down there, a sex cult of young women who seem to work 15 hour days in South Carolina. In the back, an alligator enclosure that has mysteriously burned to the ground. Rampant misogyny and sexual predation over here. Here, someone accidentally fires a gun through his head, captured on security footage, no less. Oh, and an employee’s arm is ripped off by a tiger. 

Tiger King is no docuseries. It is not a sweeping exposé, looking to reveal the underbelly of an inhumane subculture. The only vaguely anti-animal cruelty thesis appears in the last four minutes of the series, at which point the screen is filled with grim statistics and the limbs of animals dangling out of cages. But those animals have been in cages this whole time, and the abrupt shift to the style of a sentimental PETA ad feels like a directorial scramble to inject the series with some sort of last-minute moral clarity. 

The series also does little to form any sense of comprehensive character profiles. The characterization of Exotic, on whom the series focuses most, gets its greatest moment of depth when it is revealed he is gay. We learn Exotic had an adolescence of brutal self-repression, an ashamed father, an attempted suicide. But the brief moment of character insight is couched in slow piano music, childhood photos fading in and out, and Exotic’s sexuality is presented as the archetypal queer tragedy. With all the requisite elements there, the production leans into the trope that we are beckoned to respond to with sympathy. And this moment is largely the most backstory we get. As a result, Exotic’s sexuality feels like yet another twist in a story that grows increasingly absurd, not a genuine moment of understanding who this person is. 

Such a feeling is compounded by the show’s irreverence for thoughtful portrayals of queerness more generally, as we see the repeated misgendering of Saff Saffery, an unassuming, dedicated employee at Exotic’s zoo. Exotic’s queer, polygamous marriage is presented as another freakshow within a larger circus tent, too. Instead of seriously evaluating the marriage on its own distressing terms—two, considerably younger, heterosexual men who marry their employer and the enabler of their drug addictions—the series presents the marriage as a camp, laughable sideshow. 

Perhaps Tiger King’s most disturbing fault is its treatment of the murder accusations that fall on Baskin. Portraying her culpability in the silences they leave her with when she finishes speaking in interviews, the showrunners sprint to create an eeriness surrounding the Baskin character. The facts often do not look good for her, sure, but the series does little work to actually investigate the accusation itself, instead leaving viewers with salacious tidbits that feel far more tantalizing than conclusive. Tiger King isn’t within a stone’s throw of true crime drama. It’s wholly unconcerned with the actual solving of a murder, instead using this narrative as yet another exciting, shocking twist. 

The show’s disinterest in providing any clear answers surrounds many of the storylines we’re presented—juicy accusations left dangling without much followup. Is Exotic an arsonist? Are tiger cubs being executed in gas chambers? Is Doc Antle running a sex slavery ring? Who’s really to say, the show essentially tells us, choosing instead to move on to the next episode’s unsettling accusation. 

So if Tiger King isn’t an argumentative exposé, if it isn’t a murder mystery nor a probing profile of inscrutable characters and an unknown American subculture, what is it?

The show’s roots feel firmly intertwined with American reality television, but it so masterfully inverts the model. In nearly all top-rated reality shows, we find a structure of aspiration, a window into those who in some way live the sought-after life. The most successful reality TV dips us into wealth, status, love, and beauty. It shows those who have attained the conventionally unattainable. Tiger King flips the model, switching out the enviable for the detestable. And it’s exhausting. 

But here we are, on our seventh hour watching Tiger King because it leaves us irresistibly self-assured. Particularly in our moment of quarantine, a period of severe distress and uncertainty, of potential economic precarity and risk to our health, there is a sick comfort in seeing this bizarre world of perpetual disaster. At least, in our jobs, industry disputes are not resolved with a hired assassin. At least we do not depend on Walmart dumpster meat for meals. At least I have all my teeth and my ear lobes do not hang at the mercy of three to six small silver hoops. At least we would never work for a man like Joe Exotic. 

Reality television has a habit of succeeding when we feel intellectually or emotionally superior, but such a feeling is often offset by some trace of envy. Take fellow Netflix recents Love is Blind and Too Hot to Handle. The former’s premise is a group of men and women who are meant to marry after falling in love while separated by a translucent screen. In the latter, attractive singles are placed on a paradisal island, a cash prize hanging over their heads so long as they can abstain from sexual activities. We giggle at the absurdity of these shows, but there remains a tucked away longing for the experiences we watch. If only finding a partner could be as simple as chatting through a wall for ten days. If only I were off this couch, on that beach, hot enough to be on a show where one’s main qualification is what they look like. We accept the premise to be idiotic; we delight in seeing that the participants don’t realize it. But, at the end of the day, they seem to achieve something we, too, wouldn’t mind. 

Not so for Tiger King. The series senses our disdain for characters, our desire for a low-brow schadenfreude. In an episode titled “Make America Exotic Again,” showrunners speak to a particular scorn many Americans have grown used to. We have already experienced a sufficient study in narcissism and egomania from a leader who rose to prominence while leaning on the appearance of power, status, and success. And when supporters hug Exotic as he campaigns for governor of Oklahoma alongside his tigers, eventually winning 18% in the Libertarian primary, the series nearly beckons our expected response, one that those of a certain political, economic, or educational stripe have taken to in recent years: “Have people lost their fucking minds?” 

Episode after episode, we watched generally unintelligent, morally-corrupt, unattractive people harm themselves, one another, and wild animals. Yet we tuned in again. Tiger King knew that it was making us feel, well, better. 

Tiger King was a moment of shared cultural connection, giving us a stable conversation topic for about three quarantined weeks. To be sure, it was captivating television, just not good. I was riveted by the storyline, but quickly felt uncomfortable as to why I, like so many others, was having fun. For a car crash of a show during this moment of widespread misfortune, we didn’t mind having a peek at the side of the road for a few hours. But it felt good to keep driving.