Tiger King review: A love-hate relationship with a Netflix documentary on Joe Exotic, murder, mayhem and madness

netflix tiger king

Andrew Leci lacerates Tiger King, one of Netflix’s most popular series, and loves it at the same time, as do (and will) we all. Warning: hardly any plot spoilers

In the slightly pathetic commercial exploitation of a popular series, Netflix decided to release episode eight of Tiger King. It was a retrospective, catching up with some of the series’ main protagonists – the much-loved ‘where are they now?’ scenario – and was nothing more, nor less, than the topping on a televisual cake, from which many people have taken a slice. Some have enjoyed it. Many others have taken a bite and spat it out. Most others, I suspect, have chewed reflectively, been uncomfortable with the flavours and swallowed reluctantly.

In the cynically manufactured aftermath episode, risibly but catchily entitled The Tiger King and I, John Finlay – just one of the eponymous Tiger King’s ex-husbands – has a wonderful set of gnashers (teeth). He’s moved on. He has new teeth. He now looks relatively normal, which is in marked contrast to almost every other character in a series that is both disgusting and compelling; visceral and disturbingly amusing – possibly in equal measure.

Most of Tiger King’s characters have bad teeth. This is because they are ‘rednecks’, ‘poor white trash’ and ‘trailer park hillbillies’. This includes Joe Exotic (aka, Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, né Schreibvogel – you can kind of understand why he would have wanted to change that) an American former ‘zoo operator’. Finlay married him. Joe is referred to as ‘batshit crazy’ more times than is uncomfortable, and yet he remains the hero of the piece throughout eight buttock-clenchingly, cringeworthy episodes of a documentary series that was five years in the making.

netflix tiger king
A still from Netflix’s Tiger King. That’s Joe Exotic and a few cubs

It’s an excellent piece of film – decently shot, very well edited and as even-handed as anything of its ilk could be – and yet the moral values of putting such a thing into production in the first place are so questionable as to make us wonder why anyone would want to do it in the first place. And, more importantly, what kind of audience was imagined to be the most receptive (i.e. hookable).

Therein lies the rub. Tiger King is ‘lizard brain’ material, with more than a smattering of schadenfreude and a healthy dollop of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. The vast majority of the characters portrayed are either slightly strange, a little bit quirky, or certifiably insane, and yet their depiction in a wholly naturalistic (with naturalism – it’s about tigers after all, sort of) scenario comprises a televisual feast that has set tongues wagging and imaginations leaping around the world.

Virtually everyone I have spoken to in Singapore in the last few weeks (virtually, of course) falls into one of two camps. Those who’ve watched the show, and those who haven’t. Those who are yet to experience the ‘delights’ cannot possibly understand what all the fuss is about. Those who have are almost embarrassed to discuss it; presuming that there will be a judgment imposed on anyone who has actually managed to plough through the entire series without taking the moral high ground and simply switching off.

netflix tiger king
Who agrees that Tiger King is ‘lizard brain’ material?

Is this polarising us when we need unity and commonality of purpose? Who gives a crap? This is televisual soma (cf. Aldous Huxley if you don’t know what I’m gabbing on about) in the COVID-19-produced intermezzo between our old crappy world and the brave new one we will shortly inherit – according to optimists and the certifiably delusional who genuinely think that anything is going to change in the overall scheme of things. They say that history teaches us how to learn from our mistakes, but I’m not convinced. Neither am I sure that entertainment programming will change markedly when we can leave our houses, go to work, and maybe need less guff to watch to take our minds off our predicament.

No one in their right mind would blame Netflix for putting this stuff out. Any more than they would for the likes of Love is Blind, Wild Wild Country and the ‘best’ of them all, Too Hot to Handle – a train wreck of a reality show that lizards should be ashamed of watching. Is it a coincidence that these shows have coincided with a period in which many of us have little to do other than write documentary reviews, play with cats, or replicate works of art from the contents of our fridges (see Getty Museum’s initiative)?

Possibly. But they have been timely. Escapism is key in these difficult times, and Netflix is providing plenty of it. The Tiger King and I, while mildly horrendous, proves that we are capable of caring about people with whom we share few, if any values, and are as alien to us as a jellyfish, and there may be something to learn from that, as there is from the seven previous episodes in the main series.

Otherwise, we are looking at yet another example of commercial exploitation after wringing out the pathos for the lives, loves and social mores of a whole bunch of ‘batshit crazy’ people.

All images are from Netflix and Unsplash