In January, people celebrated the new year in style: hosting themed parties in flapper dresses and talking about 2020 like it was going to be a renaissance of the culture that made the 1920s so roaring. Well, it turns out that 2020 is beginning to look a lot like the 1920s, but not in the way we all imagined. With COVID-19 barreling through the United States and stock markets plunging, Americans are getting much more than they asked for at the beginning of the year.
Streets have emptied, businesses are closed, and everyone is self-isolating at home with unexpected free time. Like many people stuck at home right now, I turned to Netflix to find a binge-worthy show, and I stumbled upon Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. This documentary miniseries is completely foolish and sickeningly brutal at the same time, and it’s an absolute must-watch.
For anyone who hasn’t seen or heard about the show, Tiger King follows zoo-owner Joseph Schreibvogel, better known as “Joe Exotic,” and the world of big cats in roadside zoos. The documentary miniseries also shows how Joe Exotic winds up in federal prison with murder-for-hire charges against animal rights activist, Carole Baskin. The show is an amalgamation of murder mystery, animal rights, magic, explosions, and so much more. No written summary of the series can really do it justice.
The editing and videography are thrilling and seemingly uncensored. I felt as though I was watching a reality show and a murder mystery simultaneously. The show seamlessly pieces together Facebook footage, Joe Exotic TV clips, news reports, and testimonials shot for Netflix. Every episode is completely different from the last, and you never know what will happen next. Seriously. One minute you’re watching baby tigers, then you learn about possible murder involving sardine oil, and then a building with alligators is on FIRE.
The editing was particularly genius because it included flashforwards in every episode to give peeks at Joe Exotic in prison. No one really knows why Joe is in prison until the penultimate episode, but the flashforwards make the series seem like a murder mystery. The final episode even shows that Joe has ended up quite poetically behind bars just like all of the tigers he kept in captivity.
In “What to Read, Watch and Listen to Now That You’ve Finished Tiger King” in W Magazine, Brooke Marine says the show “is a true crime investigation, subculture deep dive, and ethically contentious production all rolled into one.” Most importantly though, the show is structured and edited in a way that gives the audience no clear answers or truths. Despite the prison sentence at the end of the series, the audience is left unsure about several characters and murders.
One of the more subtle things I appreciated about the series was its coverage of animal cruelty. By looking at it closely, you notice the series is an allegory about animal mistreatment. It’s caused many viewers to learn more about animal rights, and the series offered a platform for organizations such as PETA and National Geographic to speak up.
In a recent article titled “Key Facts That ‘Tiger King’ Missed about Captive Tigers” in National Geographic Online, Rachel Bale takes advantage of the series to educate people about tigers in captivity: “Cubs are only economically (and legally) useful for a short time—eight weeks to 12 weeks old. They quickly get too dangerous to interact with visitors. They may become breeders themselves, or go on exhibit. There’s evidence that some are killed.” The show forced people to see how cruelly animals are treated which has produced a new wave of awareness about animal rights.
In a time of uncertainty and chaos in the world, watching the series puts things into perspective. In a strange way, Tiger King makes people feel better about COVID-19 and quarantining. In an article titled “Tiger King is Cruel and Appalling– Why Are We All Watching It?” in Wired, Kate Knibbs insightfully comments about the pandemic and the series.
She says, “As most people experience their first pandemic and its attending grief and misery, comforting sitcom standards or adorable rom-coms seem like they should be attracting audiences. Instead, the buzzy quarantine show is about a man who wildly mistreats majestic animals, appears to prey on vulnerable young men, and at the very least seriously considers straight-up murdering a lady.” Things seem dystopian and strange all around us, but Joe Exotic’s life is even crazier than ours which makes the series so fascinating and comforting.
Viewers who didn’t like Tiger King will argue it was too crazy, not structured enough, or showcased too much unethical behavior. However, I think the unstructured craziness and unethical behavior are what make the series good. It’s a cautionary tale, a true crime documentary, a look into a world audiences have never seen before. It’s so bad you can’t look away. It has something for everyone.
I encourage anyone to sit down and binge this series, especially if you’re stuck inside because of COVID-19. It’s a show no one has ever seen before, and it’s the show you need right now. Joe Exotic’s eccentric life and love of tigers are truly a fitting start to the roaring twenties.