‘Tiger King’ is the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos of Netflix, in the best and worst ways

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Since the only social interaction currently happening is over the internet, it seems virtually impossible for you not to have heard of “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” Yes, you think, it’s that one Netflix documentary series about people who own big cats. But then you realize that it’s so much more than that. A poorly conceived murder plot? A doctor of mystical science? Check. The man who allegedly inspired Al Pacino’s character in “Scarface”? Check. Alligators dying in a mysterious fire? Check. The fact that those were Michael Jackson’s former alligators, but the show was so crazy it didn’t even cover that fact? Check.

Where do we even begin with this tour de force of a show? The only proper answer is with its heart and poster boy, Joe Exotic. The former owner of an exotic animal park in Oklahoma, Joe Exotic is whom this documentary begins and, after many, many detours, ends with. More or less, the series tracks Joe Exotic, a man with the showmanship of a children’s party magician and the aesthetic of Lisa Frank, and his exploits while running the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. These exploits range from an employee getting his arm ripped off by a tiger to expired Walmart meat being used to feed the staff, the animals and the guests, to a botched reality television show that ends with all of the footage (along with a few alligators) burning up. It’s probably safe to say neither People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals nor the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would approve of Joe Exotic’s management. 

Joe Exotic is not defined by his professional life, however. The documentary also follows him through his marriages and “throuples” with various men, some of whom identify as straight. Joe Exotic also ran for president during the 2016 election, as well as for governor of Oklahoma in 2018, when he somehow garnered almost 20% of the Libertarian vote. He also has a series of country music videos, which could conveniently be purchased at the park’s gift store.

Oh, and Joe Exotic is currently serving time in prison after being convicted of attempting to hire someone to murder animal welfare activist Carole Baskin. So somehow, the blatant animal cruelty documented in the show is seen as the least of its evils. With any other crime docu-series, viewers would be saying justice got served. But this man is portrayed as such a character that some people are spearheading campaigns to free Joe Exotic from prison.

As it turns out, just like horse girls are a specific type, so are big cat people. “Tiger King” also covers other big players in the big cat industry, most notably Doc Antle and Baskin. The show also delves into Baskin’s alleged involvement in the disappearance of her second husband, which has gotten so much coverage that police are revisiting the 1997 case that has not seen an update since 2011, when Baskin herself refused a polygraph test.

These are just a few of the many stories covered within the seven episodes of this series. Like a car accident on a freeway, “Tiger King” is a mess that you can’t look away from. And even in this climate, it may still reign as the craziest thing to happen in 2020. “Tiger King” is a Costco-sized bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — delicious, addicting and dangerously easy to finish in one sitting.

Just like looking at the nutrition label on the bag, however, you start to get a little bit sick when you realize how terrible most of these people seem to be. Every time you rave about the show, it comes with a little asterisk. Yes, Joe Exotic is the lovechild of a Walmart and a Rainforest Cafe. Yes, Antle is like if Mugatu from “Zoolander” watched Steve Irwin and said, “I want to be that guy.” Yes, Baskin is the grown-up version of that one kid who was always a little too into cats. These people and their lives are wild. And that is an understatement. 

But we shouldn’t glorify these people or use memes as an excuse to humanize them. Joe Exotic is in prison for a reason, and no amount of bedazzled leopard print jackets is enough of a reason to exonerate him. With all the scandal and sensationalism, there is so little talk about what actually matters — the treatment of these animals and whether or not exotic animals should be held in captivity to begin with. That’s not saying you can’t enjoy the series for the insane roller coaster that it is. But hopefully at the end of all the craze surrounding “Tiger King,” it is the tigers that benefit the most.

Julie Lim covers television. Contact her at [email protected].