From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject 'Tiger King': The Most-Watched Show in America Is a Moral Failure
Date April 22, 2020 12:00 AM
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[ Netflix’s documentary Tiger King is the apotheosis of extreme
storytelling: The more unfathomable and ethically dubious, the
better.] [[link removed]]


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Sophie Gilbert
April 7, 2020
The Atlantic
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_ Netflix’s documentary 'Tiger King' is the apotheosis of extreme
storytelling: The more unfathomable and ethically dubious, the better.

'Tiger King', Netflix


At this particular moment, the most-watched show in America is a
seven-part documentary series about a gay, polygamous zoo owner in
Oklahoma who breeds tigers, commissions and stars in his own
country-music videos, presides over what he describes as “my little
cult” of drifters and much younger men, and ran for governor of
Oklahoma in 2018 on a libertarian platform. He’s also currently
serving a 22-year prison sentence for, among other charges, trying to
arrange the assassination of his nemesis, an animal-sanctuary owner in
Florida. And his business allies include another big-cat breeder—a
yoga-loving guru in Myrtle Beach who runs what appears to be a
tiger-themed sex sect.

There are no heroes in _Tiger King_. Not Joseph “Joe Exotic”
Maldonado-Passage, whose stripy mullet you’ve surely seen on social
media, accompanied by a teal sequined jacket so ostentatious that the
adult tiger he’s posing with looks like an afterthought. Not
Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who, one former employee alleges, coerces
teenage girls working 100-hour weeks at his ranch to reach “his
level of enlightenment” by sleeping with him. Not Carole Baskin, the
owner of a Florida sanctuary for big cats, who _Tiger
King_ insinuates—in a strikingly unjournalistic way—might have
killed her husband. And definitely not Eric Goode, the New York
hotelier and animal-rights activist who co-directed the series, whose
elevator pitch for it seems to have been “What if Christopher Guest,
but real?” and whose disdain for the dentally challenged and
leopard-print-festooned characters he captures is _Tiger King_’s
most discernible emotion.

And yet, for the past two-plus weeks, _Tiger King_ has consumed the
pop-cultural imagination. It’s the stuff memes are made of, heavy on
visual absurdity and light on meaning. The series is a carnival
sideshow not unlike Joe Exotic’s central-Oklahoma park: You see the
sign on the side of the road and you stop, not because you want to,
necessarily, but because it’s there.

In that sense, _Tiger King_ is also the latest and most acute
iteration of a Netflix trend toward extreme storytelling; the more
unfathomable and ethically dubious, the better. The point is
virality—content so outlandish that people can’t help but talk
about it. In 2018, the docuseries _Wild Wild Country_
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the model, with its jaw-dropping chronicles of an alternative Oregon
faith community whose antics allegedly included spiritual orgies, gun
hoarding, electoral fraud, and mass poisonings. Last
year’s _Abducted in Plain Sight_
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the appalling story of a teenage girl who was abused and kidnapped by
a family friend, seemingly in full view of her parents. With its
reality programming, too, Netflix has been courting eyeballs with
simple insanity, via the hit dating series _Love Is Blind_
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the upcoming _Too Hot to Handle_, a show in which ridiculously
good-looking people are sequestered on an island to compete for a cash
prize that diminishes every time they hook up, or even masturbate. The
more scurrilous or degrading the concept, the more we watch.

This truism wasn’t news for P. T. Barnum, and it isn’t news now.
But there’s still something wretched to me about the way _Tiger
King_ has managed to define a cultural moment in which empathy and
communitarianism are so crucial. America right now, in the midst of a
pandemic, is reliant on collective behavior, adhering to rules, and
taking sensible precautions to avoid danger. _Tiger King _is the TV
equivalent of licking the subway pole. Its characters have managed to
construct whole worlds around themselves rather than curtail their
worst impulses in any way. These characters are so colorful that they
obliterate everything else around them. They’re any
documentarian’s dream, and yet you can’t help but wonder what the
directors hope to get out of giving showmen the mass exposure that
they want. Who, in the end, benefits?

On its face, _Tiger King_ is about a remarkable subculture in the
U.S.: people who collect and (illegally) breed big cats. There are,
the show reveals early on, more privately owned tigers living in
America than there are existing in the wild, kept in independent
“zoos” and parks across the country. (In 2003, authorities
discovered that a man in Harlem was cohabiting with a 400-pound tiger
named Ming, in the same apartment that his mother was using to babysit
children.) If the people drawn to tigers have a shared
quality, _Tiger King_ emphasizes, it’s extroversion, which it
illustrates in one scene with footage of Doc Antle riding an elephant
into town while opining in voice-over about the “primordial
calligraphy” of exotic animals.

Joe Exotic, for better or worse, is the show’s central character,
and _Tiger King_ sketches out a sparse biography that hints at,
rather than elucidates, the forces that shaped him. The challenge
seems to be that anything he says is stated in the service of
inflating his own mystique, and the directors decline to press him or
any of the other characters on the worst charges against them. There
are some undeniable facts, such as how hard it must have been for
Exotic to be a gay man in rural Oklahoma during the ’80s and ’90s.
There’s also his history of releasing country songs he only
lip-synchs to; his run for president in 2016 and for governor two
years later; and his habit of filming virtually everything he does.
There are a few private moments, too, including how he reacts after
one of his employees is mauled by a tiger while at work. “I’m
never gonna financially recover from this,” Maldonado-Passage sighs,
while the rest of his employees try to tend to the victim’s severed
arm. Hardest to endure is how he behaves at the funeral for his
youngest husband, Travis, who accidentally shoots himself in the head.
Dressed up in a dog collar, Exotic seizes the spotlight, singing,
cracking jokes, and reminiscing fondly about his late partner’s
testicles while Travis’s mother sobs.

Mostly, though, Exotic communes with tigers. He cuddles them while
they’re riding shotgun in the front seat of his truck; he wrestles
with them; he uses a steel hook to wrest newborn cubs from their
mothers and then complains that the screaming babies are making too
much noise. The visual impact of seeing humans and tigers so
intimately connected is one of the defining qualities of _Tiger
King_, and is also, the series suggests, why some people find tigers
so appealing. There’s a taboo quality to the breach of natural laws
separating humans and big cats that implies strength, virility, and
power. No wonder, the show notes, so many male Tinder users
have tiger selfies
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_Tiger King_’s unified theory of tiger obsession falls short,
however, when it reaches Carole Baskin, the owner of a Florida animal
sanctuary devoted to big cats. This shortcoming might explain why the
show takes such pains to portray her as a kook, and possibly even a
murderer. Baskin is Exotic’s bête noire, a woman who has dedicated
her career to trying to outlaw the breeding and personal ownership of
exotic cats in the U.S. The show’s treatment of Baskin is where it
indulges in its most egregious displays of false equivalence, as it
tries to elevate her eccentricities to stand alongside those of Exotic
and Antle. Baskin, _Tiger King_ painstakingly lays out, is obsessed
with animal print. The horror! Sometimes she wears flower crowns! She
has an uncanny gift for search-engine optimization! She rides a
bicycle! Her sanctuary relies heavily on unpaid volunteers! The show
underscores all these facts, while making the most of the mysterious
disappearance of Carole’s husband in 1997 and interviewing family
members who seem convinced that she killed him. “There is absolutely
no physical evidence at this time” implicating any one individual as
a suspect, a police detective firmly and rather crushingly points
out. _Tiger King_ doesn’t care. It would much rather imply several
times that she _could_ have fed her husband’s corpse to tigers,
had she been so inclined.

Baskin is interesting, too, because she’s a woman operating in a
world characterized by gleeful misogyny. Exotic makes effigies of
Baskin; he fills her mailbox with snakes (a strangely phallic
gesture); he makes memes about her crotch, and videos in which he
fantasizes about torturing her with a horse penis. He calls her a
bitch so many times that the word loses all meaning. Jeff Lowe, one of
Exotic’s business associates, who enters the series midway through,
is a more limited character, but his treatment of women is still
horrible enough to be noteworthy. (As his wife tells the camera about
how she’s preparing for the upcoming birth of their child, Lowe
remarks that she’ll immediately have to go back to the gym, and
shows the directors glamour shots of the women he’s considering as
nannies. Lowe, according to the show, also has a felony criminal
record and a history of charges that include throttling his first
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The degradation in _Tiger King_ starts to feel contagious after a
while. Goode and his co-director, Rebecca Chaiklin, filmed the series
over five years, and the longer they spend with their subjects, the
more obviously things fall apart. One of Exotic’s ex-husbands, John
Finlay, gives shirtless interviews that show off his abundant tribal
tattoos—including a crotch adornment that reads privately owned joe
exotic—and his undeniable lack of teeth. (Only in Episode 5
does _Tiger King_ stop to note that meth has been a prevalent factor
in Exotic’s world the whole time.) The interviews become more and
more invasive. Travis’s mother is asked about her son’s death
while she’s seemingly intoxicated. In Episode 7, one of Exotic’s
zoo employees is so incapacitated that he passes out mid-interview.
Exotic’s campaign manager is interviewed early on as a fresh-faced
former Walmart manager enthusiastically crafting Exotic’s
libertarian platform; a year or so later, he too has lost teeth, and
appears considerably more disheveled than during his clean-cut
canvassing days.

Exotic is the only one who appears unchanged, even as the plot makes
its way toward his 22-year jail sentence for conspiring to have Baskin
assassinated. The persona he’s crafted, you sense, is strong enough
to survive anything, even prison. In that sense, there’s something
undeniably Trumpian about him. No misfortune can shake his sense of
self. No humiliation can shame a man who refuses to be shamed. The
chaotic reactions that Exotic has sparked are irrevocable, and even
now, he’s fast approaching cultural-legend status, as Hollywood
stars spar on Twitter
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who gets to play him in the already-approved miniseries. “Fuck yeah,
roll the cameras,” is how the reality-TV producer Rick Kirkham
described watching Exotic at his most idiosyncratic and badly behaved.
Netflix obviously agreed. Why can’t the rest of us look away?

Sophie  Gilbert i_s a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she
covers culture._


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