Television

The Tiger King and I Almost Offers a Corrective to the Hit Series

Netflix’s new special tosses its audience some juicy scraps, but it’s there to whet appetites, not spoil them.

Joe Exotic feeding a tiger with a baby bottle, the tiger putting a paw up on his shoulder
Was “Tiger King” Joe Exotic … afraid of tigers? Netflix

Instead of the traditional aftershow featuring all of the participants reunited in an ersatz living room, The Tiger King and I, the oversold “eighth episode” of Netflix’s runaway hit show, filmed its conversations COVID-19-style, with host Joel McHale conducting half a dozen interviews from the safety of his own home. But the 40-minute special owes its existence, as McHale quipped at the outset, to a different pandemic: “Tiger King fever.”

While there’s no way to evaluate McHale’s repeated claim that it’s “the most popular documentary of all time,” Tiger King has become an inescapable phenomenon over the past three weeks, an engrossing train wreck whose lurid appeal was supercharged by the paucity of available alternatives. At a moment when the public square is all but deserted, losing ourselves in the story of an openly gay polygamist redneck with a thing for exotic animals felt like the closest thing to a collective experience—or, at least, a collective experience not rooted in fear and uncertainty. Tracking down the story’s players in the present day has become a profitable sideline, and with the series remaining at or near the top of Netflix’s charts, they found a way to cut themselves in on the action and to do it with minimal new investment.

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Although it’s listed as a new episode of the seven-part Tiger King, … and I is just a barely glorified postgame roundup, checking in with the series’s minor players while offering little in the way of fresh insights, to say nothing of the WTF moments that the series delivers on a regular basis. These omissions are bizarre considering how much juicy material the show left on the table, but even when McHale does touch on a subject the show omits, like the fact that Joe Exotic didn’t even sing the country songs that are presented as his, he glosses over it or uses it as fodder for a weak one-liner. The series leaves so many questions unanswered, but McHale seemingly didn’t bother to pursue any of them, or if he did, those parts got cut out in favor of repetitive icebreakers like “Who would you want to play you in the movie?”

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Occasionally, The Tiger King and I touches on an interesting subject, like the fact that the series persistently misgenders Saff, the transgender man who lost his arm to a tiger bite. But he’s so phlegmatic about it—perhaps not surprisingly for someone who had his arm amputated and went back to work the same week—that it lets the filmmakers skate by without explanation. The closest thing to a genuine surprise is the assertion by Rick Kirkham, the producer of Joe’s would-be reality TV show, that Joe was actually terrified of tigers; the white tiger we frequently see him with was blind, and the other was habitually sedated. It could add a whole new layer to the story, undermining what the series presents as the one core truth about a man whose life is otherwise a morass of lies. But like the series itself, the post-show special is only interested in skimming the surface, not diving beneath it.

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Given that the special at least gives us a few solid minutes with each of its participants, it does include a few small revelations, like that Erik Cowie, the head zookeeper who responds to McHale’s opening “Howya doing?” with “Just living clean and loving Jesus,” is a recovering alcoholic, or that Joshua Dial, the campaign manager who witnessed the death of Joe’s husband Travis, worked out of the same office staring at the bullet hole in the wall for another year and a half. (Not surprisingly, he is now raising money for psychological counseling and meds.) Jeff Lowe, the financier who took control of Joe’s zoo, still comes off as an unrepentant prick and, dropping hints about undisclosed dirt on other documentary subjects, seems to be the interviewee who’s most clearly angling for a reality series of his own. (I wish I could confidently say that a show about a wealthy Vegas sleazebag with an open marriage and a sexy nanny would be a dud, but the success of Tiger King suggests otherwise.)

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If The Tiger King and I acts as any kind of corrective to the series, it’s by largely rejecting the framing of Joe Exotic as an eccentric animal lover who got carried away by fame. With few exceptions, the people McHale talks to are glad that Joe, whom they describe regularly executing animals with his handy revolver, is in prison, and a few express the hope that he’ll die there. McHale asks Kirkham to compare Joe to his old Inside Edition boss Bill O’Reilly, and Kirkham concludes that Joe is “more evil,” but O’Reilly is “more of just an asshole.” The obvious anger they still have toward him makes it even more clear how much Tiger King was seduced by its subject and how audiences have played along. The extent to which the show’s viewers were manipulated into hating Carole Baskin, whom polls indicate is its least popular figure by a wide margin, remains the most troubling aspect of its popularity. (A representative for the Humane Society told the Tampa Bay Times that they hold Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue “in the highest regard,” but from watching Tiger King, you’d think there’s no difference between her animal sanctuary and Joe’s.)

But while there are so many more questions to be asked, Netflix isn’t out to kill its golden goose by making people question their love of Tiger King. McHale is only stopping by to throw another  batch of red meat into the cage.

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