Being crazier than the world outside is an awfully high bar to clear right now. But the Netflix documentary Tiger King soars over it with room to spare. A self-described “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet” who amasses one of the country’s largest collections of wild cats, Joe Exotic (né Schreibvogel) would be a full meal for a more sedate series, but directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin serve up a seven-course, five-hour banquet of off-the-wall characters, enough to justify their subtitle: “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.”*
Tiger King is also a sprawling, ethically shaky mess, starting off as an abstracted, Errol Morris–style character study (complete with knockoff Philip Glass score), shifting to a first-person filmmaker-on-a-quest framing, then settling into the familiar shape of a tabloid-TV magazine show—and that’s just within the first 10 minutes. The opening teaser spoils what ought to be the story’s big reveal—that Joe, the garrulous, animal-loving proprietor of a private zoo, ends up in jail as part of a murder-for-hire plot—in the name of hooking viewers early, and the series keeps cutting back to phone interviews with him as it meanders its way toward its sordid conclusion. Goode told Vanity Fair that Netflix pushed to emphasize the story’s outsize personalities at the expense of the animal-rights themes he saw as its core, and the result is that when Tiger King tries to wrap up its lessons with a tidy bow, it feels like the conclusion to an entirely different series.
That said, with characters like these, the temptation to throw everything else aside and just gawk at them open-mouthed is a hard one to avoid. Every episode adds to the menagerie. There’s Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who staffs his organization, the Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) with Instagram-ready female trainers in skimpy outfits and styles himself as something between a cult leader and a god; Mario Tabraue, a Miami drug kingpin who gets into wildlife as a way of going “legit”; and Jeff Lowe, a Vegas financier who uses tiger cubs as a way to lure women into threesomes with his wife. (Polygamy and open relationships are a recurring theme.) One of the employees at Joe’s park, who we’ve seen wearing prosthetic limbs for several episodes, briefly mentions that he lost his legs in a tragic zip-lining accident, and the series just moves on as if it’s got bigger fish to fry. It’s both overstuffed and undercooked, lavishing large amounts of time on salacious but thinly sourced detours—the entire third episode is devoted to unsubstantiated allegations against one of Joe’s professional rivals—while breezing past people whose stories aren’t quite batshit enough to make the grade.
Joe’s story, already the subject of a six-part podcast and a lengthy profile in New York magazine—not to mention an aborted reality TV show whose producer becomes one of Tiger King’s characters—is rich and strange enough to support any number of retellings. He’s a morbidly fascinating figure, one who found that animals filled a hole in his life and then found that fame, or the constant quest for it, was an even better fix. He recorded country songs with titles like “I Saw a Tiger” and hosted a webcast for an initially tiny audience, but it seems as if the biggest rush was playing to the live audience at his zoo. Joe walks around the place with animal-print shirts unbuttoned to the navel and a revolver prominently displayed at his hip, and approaches his big cats without fear or hesitation. There are also dark mutterings that he abuses them, or sells off the cubs when they get too big for petting, but the series throws up so much dust it’s hard to tell what’s innuendo and what’s a smoking gun.
Joe’s nemesis—or, perhaps, depending on your reading, the story’s true hero—is Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue. For Joe, she is the embodiment of what he derisively refers to as “the animal rights people,” an activist who has singled him out for persecution, and her crusade to put him out of business drives him to even more extreme behaviors. He’ll launch into rants against her while he’s shooting what seems to be a lighthearted promotional video or dress up a mannequin like her and abuse it during his webcast. At one point, he hires a convincing-looking lookalike to feed what are purportedly chunks of her dead husband’s body to his tigers while he shoots a music video. For all Joe’s eccentricities, it’s not hard to see why people are devoted to him; one worker at his park suffers a serious on-the-job injury and forgoes treatment because they’re worried about negative publicity. But his antipathy for Carole Baskin isn’t just on-camera bluster, even if he’s good enough at the latter to suggest he could have had a profitable career in professional wrestling. It’s ugly, and it throws a wrench into Tiger King’s attempt to portray him as a lovable nut who let things get away from him.
Tiger King is genuinely compulsive viewing, although those who are sensitive to depictions of animal abuse should be warned that while we don’t see that much of it, it’s sometimes described in graphic detail. I’d describe it as like watching a slow-motion car crash, but only if that car crashed into a jet plane and then both tumbled into an oil tanker. As with a lot of compulsions, indulging it may not leave you feeling satisfied as much as spent, with a vague feeling of having done something that’s not entirely healthy. But at the moment, anything that keeps you indoors and in your right mind is a blessing, and if it increases your resistance to slick-talking hucksters, that’s an immunity we could stand to reinforce as well.
Correction, March 25, 2020: This post originally misspelled Joe Schreibvogel’s last name.
For more discussion of Tiger King, listen to Slate’s Spoiler Special podcast on the show.