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Real Big Cats of Oklahoma

The Viral Charm of Tiger King

How Netflix is breeding the true crime documentary with reality TV

By Georgia Hampton

ENTERTAINMENT

Georgia Hampton (MANAJ 2020) is the entertainment editor and photo editor at F Newsmagazine. She couldn't possibly comment at this time.

Illustration by Chanina Katz

As I was desperately trying to avoid the news about the pandemic, I was dogged by another seemingly unavoidable presence: the face of Joe Exotic. I hadn’t yet watched “Tiger King” — the new Netflix documentary miniseries about “murder, mayhem, and madness” within the world of big cat breeding in the United States — but if the Internet was any indication of a program’s popularity, it looked like I was going to have to. “If Lisa Frank was a person,” one popular meme declared, showing me again and again the same image of Joe Exotic, the be-mulletted, outrageously dressed owner of the now-defunct Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, and star of “Tiger King.” Joe Exotic lives up to his name; the image used in the Lisa Frank meme shows Joe, dressed in a sequined multicolor animal print bomber jacket and white jeans, kneeling with performative reverence next to a massive tiger. “The ‘Tiger King’ is the Meme King,” writes Nadine DeNinno in a piece for The New York Post compiling the best fan reactions to the show. And it’s true — the bleach-blond mullet, the sequined jacket, and did I mention the massive eyebrow piercing? The memes practically write themselves. 

“Tiger King” has come at perhaps the perfect time — at last, something to talk about that isn’t our collective dread about the uncertainty of practically everything. The show even scratches a similar itch to the need to obsessively chatter about the virus, but trades existential terror for indulgent gossip about the endless backstabbing within the big cat community. The show’s seven episodes tell viewers the end of the story before backing up to the beginning. Within the first episode we learn that Joe Exotic — a gay, polyamorous redneck and lover of big cats — is now in jail for allegedly plotting to kill his longtime rival, the owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida: Carole Baskin. To get to Joe’s eventual arrest, the show weaves through the bizarre lives of both Joe Exotic’s life as an unlikely zoo owner and the many others who make big cats their business. There’s manipulation, Carole’s supposed murder of her “missing” first husband, a cult-like hierarchy at another zoo in Myrtle Beach, and someone’s arm getting ripped off by a tiger. No wonder it’s all everyone is talking about.

But “Tiger King” is only the newest in a string of surprisingly popular miniseries documentaries that Netflix has put out recently. That genre, at least in my mind, hasn’t been historically known to produce the kind of indulgent watercooler talk that we would normally associate with other kinds of shows. When I think of the basic idea of a “documentary miniseries,” images of serious World War II programs on the History Channel come to mind. But while Netflix’s foray into the production of original documentary content doesn’t come as much of a surprise, what “Tiger King” has done with the genre is decidedly unique.

The streaming platform offers your standard, run-of-the-mill documentary series, with the likes of Ken Burns’ “Vietnam War” or “Explained,” the kind of docuseries that is meant to teach you — but “Tiger King” indicates a shift in the kind of docuseries that Netflix is interested in making. Rather than offer an educational experience, “Tiger King” combines a standard, episodic documentary format with two secret ingredients: the serialized, character-driven drama of reality TV and the addictive rubbernecking of true crime. By using these two styles together, “Tiger King” becomes pure drama and pure escapism, an addictive combination with irresistible results.

The show scratches a similar itch to the need to obsessively chatter about the virus, but it trades existential terror for indulgent gossip.

Reality TV trades in hyper-specific stories with a high shock value, low stakes, and no larger themes at play. And Netflix, for its part, has become a major player in the production of reality content. Within the past year, the streaming platform has put out two hugely popular reality shows: “The Circle” and “Love Is Blind.” Both are reality competitions and both involve some level of obscurity among players — “The Circle” has individuals catfish each other in private rooms, while “Love Is Blind” pairs people together "blindly," never allowing the couple to view each other until the altar. Neither of these shows are my kind of thing, but both programs offer three things: complete ridiculousness, pure escapism, and easy-to-consume drama. I can understand the appeal of that. Reality TV doesn’t use its stories as a way to send forth a larger message about the state of the world, at least not intentionally. What it offers instead is a balance of fun and foolish, pure emotion without any lingering consequence.

There is another genre that Netflix has used for similar means: true crime. And while the platform has sometimes used true crime to speak to larger issues at play in modern society — the enormously successful series “Making A Murderer” is perhaps the best example of that — there are also a selection of true crime docuseries on Netflix that feed a need that is much more similar to reality TV. In only three episodes, this year’s true crime docuseries “Don’t F*** With Cats” told the disturbing story of how a group of internet nerds banded together to take down an elusive animal abuser. But despite the show’s upsetting themes, it also proves itself to be similarly escapist in tone, albeit from a much darker place than, say, “The Circle.” Here again is the evocation of pure emotion without consequence. I am not urged to perform the same kind of investigative campaign that is presented in “Don’t F*** With Cats.” I’m meant instead to be shocked and, importantly, want to talk to my friends about it.

“Tiger King” is the perfect blend of reality TV and indulgent true crime, and is sure to lean heavily on both genres to produce a familiar sense of leering escapism. A pivotal subplot in the show surrounds the production of a reality show about Joe Exotic and G.W. Zoo called “Joe Exotic TV.” “Joe Exotic was everything I had dreamed of in finding a reality show,” explains the program’s producer Rick Kirkham, and indeed he is: Joe Exotic performs endlessly, whether it’s to a camera, to an audience visiting the zoo, or to himself. He hates animal rights activists (who consider him an animal abuser) and, most of all, he hates Carole Baskin. And in perhaps the show’s best combination of reality TV and true crime, a twist comes around halfway through the show, when one of the buildings on the G.W. Zoo’s property mysteriously catches fire in the middle of the night, destroying all of Rick Kirkham’s footage.

But “Tiger King” points toward a shift in the kind of docuseries that Netflix is interested in making.

As Netflix continues producing documentary content, this is the kind of program I imagine we will see more and more in the coming months. I can understand why; it’s engrossing, it’s easy to watch, and, above all else, it’s nonthreatening. There is an implicit in producing that sort of message, however. At their best, documentaries are meant to be educational through the telling of real-life stories, even if those stories are small. And I do wonder what exactly is being taught through something like “Tiger King.” The show’s final episode attempts to grapple with that problem, but it ultimately falls flat. Just before the credits roll, a simple title card appears onscreen, listing the number of big cats privately owned in the United States compared to the number of big cats in the wild. (Spoiler: the former is significantly higher than the latter). But this important message comes too late — the scandalous nature of the show proves more enticing than any of the more somber messages it could offer its viewers.

Rarely if ever do I see some kind of online discourse about the problems inherent in private big cat ownership. Rather, all I see are memes upon memes emphasizing the infighting between zoo owners and the suspicious disappearance Carole Baskin’s husband. But “Tiger King” also has at its core several questions about animal rights and animal abuse: Who should be allowed to keep tigers and other big cats? What regulations should be put in place to ensure big cats have the best accommodations? How can we increase the wild population of big cats and decrease the domesticated population of big cats? But maybe that’s not the conversation we want to have right now. Because all I see are people wondering if they could combine their $1,200 coronavirus stimulus checks to buy a tiger. f

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