In the middle of the final episode of “Tiger King,” the camera cuts to a cold, austere building facade. It’s the prison where Joe Exotic, the show’s titular Tiger King, is being held. Somber, atmospheric music drones in the background. We hear Joe Exotic’s voice muffled through a phone call, as he chokes back tears and struggles for breath. “I’m telling you man,” he says. “It’s worse than what you could ever treat an animal. I’m being treated like that here.” We see a static shot of Joe’s teary face that steadily zooms in: “I can’t do much more of this.”
The music stops, and the camera cuts to a new scene. Birds are chirping in the background, and a champagne bottle stands on a white table. Howard Baskin, the husband of Joe Exotic’s arch-nemesis Carole, reminisces about celebrating with champagne and Brie on the evening of Joe’s conviction. He leans and looks into the camera lens. His comically awkward face is unfocused, looming above us, as, in slow motion, he dips a shrimp into cocktail sauce and devours it. Carole Baskin cackles.
This scene is, at once, chilling and hilarious. It’s one of many from the Netflix documentary “Tiger King: Murder, Madness and Mayhem” that skillfully uses editing for dramatic and comedic effect. It’s these scenes throughout the show — revealing twists, like a mysterious arson, a surprise tiger attack or a gay husband’s unexpected heterosexuality — that make it so captivating. I was thoroughly entertained throughout the series’ entire 317 minute runtime, and others were too: The hit show has spawned memes, friendly Twitter wars and even mostly positive reviews from critics.
But if you watched only the scene described or read only tweets from Kim Kardashian or Cardi B, you might come away with an impression of Joe Exotic as a sympathetic, pitiable zoo owner who got hoodwinked and unfairly jailed. You might think of Carole Baskin as a cruel, greedy go-getter who savored his demise. You wouldn’t know that Joe Exotic separated tiger cubs from their mothers at birth, that he boasted regularly about killing “that bitch Carole” and that he enabled his (two) husbands’ meth addictions.
To be fair, the full documentary series does acknowledge all of these complicated aspects of Joe Exotic’s character, and more. Filmed over the course of five years, “Tiger King” follows the story of Joe Exotic, a “mulleted, gun-toting polygamist and country western singer” whose fashion recalls a Party City cowboy costume and the most outrageous top from your local Goodwill tossed into a blender. (Sequins and fringe jackets make several appearances.)
Over the course of the series, we watch as Joe Exotic goes from a tiger lover to a popular zoo owner to an increasingly paranoid egotist obsessed with his rival Carole, who runs a non-profit animal sanctuary in Florida and targets Joe’s animal rights abuses. As the feud between these two intensifies, the series introduces new, often shady, nearly-as-odd characters and shocking plot twists, until, finally, Joe Exotic is convicted on 17 counts of animal abuse and two counts related to the murder-for-hire of Carole Baskin.
The series jumps back and forth in time, allowing for twists to occur at the moment they’re most surprising. While it’s a “true” story, every aspect of the docuseries — every scene, every cut, every facial expression — is manipulative, intentionally shaping viewers’ impressions of its subjects. This is, to some extent, the case for every film or series, whether documentary or not. The reality of the camera is always a fragmented, refracted version of our lived reality.
What the camera of “Tiger King” registers is a measured, complicated portrayal of Joe Exotic. The series shows his abuse and toxic behavior, but it also shows his self-avowed moments of regret, his tears as he croaks from his prison cell. Meanwhile, a whole episode is dedicated to the idea that Carole Baskin killed her first husband, using a selection of details and interviews that can seem damning, although the local police chief states bluntly that there is no evidence of her supposed crime. Still, the series continually legitimizes the theory.
The Baskins, in turn, have responded harshly to the series. Howard referred to the filmmakers as “con-artists.” Carole claims she was told the series would be the big cat equivalent of “Blackfish.” She has also pointed out that, contrary to some of the film’s floated theories, she could not have possibly stuffed her husband into a meat grinder because her meat grinder is too small to fit a human (which, I will admit, is an oddly logical defense, to say the least).
A Morning Consult poll found that among viewers of “Tiger King,” Carole Baskin was by far the least popular character in the series. Remember, Carole was the victim of a murder-for-hire plot, has been fighting for animal rights legislation for years and has never been convicted of murder. And yet, she’s somehow less popular than multiple blatantly misogynistic and abusive men.
No documentary can perfectly represent its subjects, but “Tiger King” seems to play with some questionable ethics. People have postulated that the filmmakers watched on passively, perhaps excitedly — anticipating future ratings in a world where shows thrive on the “unfathomable and ethically dubious” — as a murder-for-hire plot unfolded and tigers were horribly mistreated.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, co-director Eric Goode claimed that the “real takeaway” from the film was “to give your money to conservation programs” and not “to sanctuaries, which are really, effectively just caging tigers and cats.” If that was truly the intended takeaway, the series failed. A limp montage at the end of the last episode lists shock-statistics about tiger zoos and sanctuaries, as if this whole time the series had been about tigers. In reality, just as tigers often serve as the backdrop for mens’ Tinder pictures (a phenomenon the show briefly explores), “Tiger King” uses tigers as a backdrop in its own profit-driven narrative of the “king” — Joe Exotic. “Tiger King” acts in the very same logic of the behavior it claims to discourage.
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Every retelling of a story — written or recorded — presents a uniquely shaped narrative that ignores some level of complexity. For example, in this very review, I have used certain words to summarize and describe, and not others. I have selected certain moments and details from a 317 minute series, and not others. I have used “Tiger King” to deliver my own desired narrative.
What were my intentions in forming this written narrative? Did I want to encourage people to think critically about portrayals of truth, and how stated intentions might be misleading and unhelpful? Yes. But at the same time — did I want to justify my sympathy for Carole and Howard Baskin? Probably. Did I just really want to apply an article I read about the subjectivity of cinema? Again, probably. It’s complicated.
Maybe the place to start — for the criminal con-artists featured in “Tiger King,” as well as for the less obvious con-artists like filmmakers, writers and you and me — is having some self-awareness about the intentions behind our actions and words, and about the limitations of the narratives we form.
“Tiger King” was never about tigers — it was, unintentionally, about our own joyful complicity in the mess of fractured truth.