What the first season of Tiger King had to offer its pandemic-afflicted viewers was a queasy but colorful cornucopia of grifters, sleaze balls, blowhards, dirtbags, idiots, and narcissists. So it’s no surprise that the documentary series’ second installment—despite much more limited airtime for its incarcerated central character, one-time animal-park owner Joe Exotic—dishes out more of the same, at least if you can stomach it. This mess has attracted plenty of flies, and Tiger King 2 continues to document the never-ending squabbles of a bunch of shady low-life animal collectors and the unfortunate dupes who come into their orbit, while also examining the parasites drawn by the attention the first season brought.
Among the latter are the usual carpetbaggers: vengeful exes, a showboating lawyer, a psychic so performatively fragile that the woman who hired him to shed light on her father’s death ends up having to comfort him at the purported scene of the crime. Add to that group of familiar bloodsuckers a new stock figure: the amateur true-crime investigator. Jack “Ripper” Smith so skillfully insinuated himself into the attempts of Don Lewis’s family to prove that Carole Baskin was responsible for his disappearance that they brought him with them when meeting with the police. He even succeeded in getting them to fire their attorney, John Phillips (another piece of work). “They chose Ripper over me,” Phillips mournfully explains to the cameras he so evidently adores. This despite Ripper being a guy “who just sits in a gaming chair and makes YouTube videos.”
Smith’s RipperJack Media channel produces rambling, patience-testing videos that have netted him an unimpressive 15,000 followers despite being featured in a high-profile Netflix documentary. They are long on dark allusions, vague language, and mixed metaphors but short on cogent detail, a muddle compounded by Ripper’s warning, in one recent example, not to “always believe everything that I say on here.” In addition to “investigations” of Lewis’ disappearance, he posts videos of commentary on stories like the Gabby Petito murder and other cases beloved of would-be Internet sleuths. There’s also a 10-minute demonstration of how to find Tiger King 2 trailers on the Netflix site, marred by Smith’s apparent inability to turn down the volume on Netflix’s autoplaying promo clips. The channel is about what you’d expect from a guy who announces, in Tiger King 2, “I got my lawyer degree from Google.”
The true-crime-addled wannabe detective who gets in over their head trying to solve a real crime is a character increasingly cropping up in fiction, whether portrayed fondly (Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building) or as a cautionary tale (Search Party from TBS/HBO). Arguably, the type goes all the way back to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a novel about a young woman so steeped in gothic fiction that she expects to find secret chambers and murder plots when visiting the ancient manse that gives the book its title. The real-life versions of these amateur sleuths have convinced themselves that they can find the answer to any mystery by scouring photos and videos from the comfort of their own gaming chairs, looking for “clues.” This delusion has led to such debacles as the infamous Find Boston Bombers subreddit, which falsely identified two innocent men as responsible for the 2013 terrorist attack. The explosion of TikTok videos about the search for Petito earlier this year was more distasteful than dangerous, foisting unprepared and ethically inept influencers into the position of vetting theories and rumors before passing them on to an audience of millions.
To be fair, most of the conmen and chancers in Tiger King 2 are a lot worse than Ripper Smith—for one thing, he lacks their cunning, and his evident sincerity is a charisma-killer. In America, we like a little more showmanship from the people trying to snow us, which is why, as Slate’s Willa Paskin has observed, Joe Exotic registers as the most likable of the bunch. He just needs the public to love him so badly that, flattered, we’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. No one in the continuing or new cast of Tiger King 2 can beat him at that game. But every single person in the Tiger King series is performing an obviously contrived identity, from Baskin’s bizarre flower-girl cooing to the empty bluster of men like zoo-owner Tim Stark, whose belligerent behavior toward law enforcement would have gotten him shot ten times over if he hadn’t been white.
This disingenuousness includes filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, who, in what passes for a display of fairness, take the opportunity to drag the (admittedly extremely unlikable) Baskin under scrutiny again for Lewis’ disappearance. There’s even less of an excuse for this now, knowing how eagerly many viewers seized upon her as the villain of a story in which she tried to stop a bunch of strutting men from abusing animals. Once more, the thin evidence for Baskin’s guilt is pored over as if it were oh-so-telling, complete with ridiculous animations of dotted lines running over maps of the couple’s neighborhood and a wild goose chase concerning a truckload of guns. The bargain-basement approach to true crime treats anything slightly odd as extremely significant without ever explaining what it’s supposed to signify. Tiger King 2 does at least give equal exposure to the many other reasons why Lewis might have intentionally disappeared (he wanted to move to Costa Rica to have sex with 15-year-old girls), died in an accident (he liked to land his planes on jungle airstrips to escape government observers), or been murdered by someone else (he was transporting suspiciously large quantities of cash out of the country to launder overseas).
Perhaps this will convince some viewers that the case is more complicated than the Baskin-haters believe, but not Ripper Smith. Baskin sued Netflix and Royal Goode Productions Inc. to keep Goode and Chaiklin from using footage they’d shot of her for the first season in Tiger King 2, in which she did not agree to appear. Smith greeted this news gleefully , as if Baskin’s attempts to scuttle the second season of the show confirmed that she has something to hide. But instead of find closure by discovering their father’s fate, Lewis’ children have seen his predatory sexual behavior recounted on the nation’s biggest streaming service.
Similarly, Baskin’s refusal to take calls from Ripper—as if he has any right to expect her to—are presented by him as suggestive of her culpability and determination to hide from “the truth.” The exhaustive scrutiny that Tiger King 2 devotes to such minutia as the fact that Baskin didn’t write about a fight she had with Lewis in her diary, or where she was during particular periods on a timeline that is hopelessly provisional to begin with, create the style, but not the substance, of rigor. At its worst—and whatever appears in Tiger King is always the worst—true-crime mania looks just like the subcultures surrounding UFO sightings, smudgy photos of “ghosts,” and other “unexplained” phenomena: Anything can become proof of what you want to believe, if you want to believe it badly enough.