Trying to describe Netflix’s new documentary series “Tiger King” is like trying to describe a fever dream. At its centre is a magnetic, mulleted, meth-using gay polygamist zoo owner/country singer/wannabe politician who’s now in jail for his involvement in a muder-for-hire plot. But as anyone who’s watched even the first episode knows, coming to terms with Joe Exotic is only the beginning of the wild, disarming, nearly hallucinatory experience of watching the series. That’s the show’s starting point.
Each character is more outlandish and corrupt than the last. There’s Joe Exotic’s sworn rival, an animal rights activist and eccentric in her own right who says she became friends with cats because she had no friends of her own, and whose second husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
There’s another exotic animal wrangler, a white man with a long ponytail who adopts an Indian name and has eight girlfriends, all much younger women who came to work for him. (And who’s apparently still leading safari tours during the current pandemic.)
There are Joe Exotic’s two husbands, one of whom is interviewed shirtless, speaking slowly as the camera pans over his few remaining teeth. There are the loyal zoo employees who continue to serve even as staff limbs are lost to the caged animals. There’s a drug dealer who used to cut open snakes to more easily transport cocaine.
If this were a work of fiction, no one would believe it.
We watch TV to be transported from our lives. Sometimes we want recognition, representation — to see stories like ours in another person’s life. But at other times, and especially at times of stress, escapism can be our most valuable tool. Getting lost in a different world, one that allows us to forget about what’s going on in our own, is something many of us need very badly right now.
Not surprisingly, video streaming numbers have increased since we’ve all started practicing social distancing. Some of us are stuck at home, bored and anxious, and likely developing some cabin fever, and as a result, we need ways to fill our time. We need good TV now more than ever.
And it’s extremely hard to think of another world as painstakingly defined, as engrossing, as morally dubious, as wild as this one. “Game of Thrones” and its complicated hierarchies and political machinations; the bizarre, cult-like courtship patterns and undeniable darkness of “Love is Blind,” the dystopian landscapes of “Black Mirror”? None of them can compete with the utter chaos of the warring personality cults of the midwestern exotic animal community.
When Netflix started producing original content in 2013, two of its first three original TV shows were major success stories: “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards,” at least before star Kevin Spacey’s fall from grace due to sexual assault allegations, were popular and critical hits and enjoyed multiple seasons. Since then, their output has expanded exponentially, and it’s fair to say the quality has been a bit uneven.
But “Tiger King” is a return to form, an entertaining show that horrifies and entertains in equal measure. It invites strong opinions, the kind of thing we can chat about at the virtual watercoolers that now exist on Zoom or Skype.
It does briefly invite us to think about captivity: the literal imprisonment of a tiger cage or a jail cell, the emotional subjugation of a coercive relationship. (The show features several.)
It nods at the captivity we’re feeling stuck at home, but it also makes voluntary house arrest for the collective good seem a little easier. Social distancing is a different kind of restraint than the life of a caged wild animal that’s killed when it’s no longer lucrative for its owner, or an addiction that forces someone to stay with a partner who acts like a cult leader.
Good entertainment informs and provokes thought, but above all it entertains. This story is sometimes sad and often disturbing. But nowhere in the world will you find a more entertaining story than this one.
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