It may be impossible to top HBO’s “The Jinx” (2015) and Netflix’s “The Keepers” (2017), which remain the two most powerful true-crime documentaries in recent memory.
Trust me when I tell you, Netflix’s “Tiger King” is the most bonkers addition to the genre you could ever imagine, taking the wild animal obsession of Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” (2004) and injecting it with steroids of the bizarre, redneck, murder-for-hire variety.
Subtitled “Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” the seven-episode docuseries follows the mullet-wearing, meth-addicted polygamist Joe Exotic (real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage), who operates the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma.
The framing device is his ongoing feud with Carole Baskin, who runs the Big Cat Rescue near Tampa, Florida, and may have a secret past of her own. Joe Exotic makes countless viral videos threatening to whack her, but is he serious or just poking his business rival?
Exotic and Baskin lead a bizarre cast of characters: Joe’s dual husbands John Finlay and Travis Maldonado; salacious videographer Rick Kirkham; wacky cult leader Doc Antle; cocaine kingpin Mario Tabraue; rival cat collector Tim Stark; car-stealing snitch James Garretson; bald hitman Allen Glover; and shady Las Vegas business partner Jeff Lowe.
The most sane of the bunch appear to be Kelci Saffery, a one-armed worker who lost her limb in a tiger attack; double amputee John Reinke, who lost both legs in a zip-lining accident; dutiful zookeeper Erik Cowie, who genuinely seems to miss his tiger friends; and Joshua Dial, who was campaign manger of Joe’s unlikely runs for governor and president.
Filmmaking duo Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin make stellar use of slow disclosure, doling out important information bit by bit across episodes. For instance, they first show a tight shot of Saffery being interviewed, then later reveal that she is missing an arm.
They also do a compelling job of mixing in B-roll of Joe’s daily life, including stunts from his nightly web-cam broadcasts, reality-style footage of the zoo grounds, and even bizarre music videos. Is that actually Joe singing? Or is he lip syncing? Does it even matter?
Best of all, each episode leaves us with cliffhanger endings that tease further juicy details, creating an addicting momentum that might just cause you to binge it all in one sitting.
The one time the filmmakers push it too far is Garretson jet skiing to “Eye of the Tiger.” Perhaps this is because it’s tonally different from the rest of the series. Or, perhaps it’s because Garretson is the most slimy, unlikable, punchable figure in the whole damn show.
You also won’t exactly get closure like “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), which got a man off death row, or “The Jinx” (2015), which got its subject to confess on camera. No, “Tiger King” ends more like ‘”Making a Murderer” with the potential of future court appeals.
Hopefully, after all the dust settles from the sensational elements, “Tiger King” will do for big cats what “Blackfish” (2013) did for killer whales at Sea World. The final stats are alarming with only 4,000 tigers left in the wild, but up to 10,000 in captivity in the U.S.
In this light, “Tiger King” leaves us with a vital question: how would you like to be caged?