The first hint that Netflix’s breakout hit Tiger King is not your normal documentary comes less than 10 seconds into the first episode. “The monkey people are a little bit different,” says an unidentified man. “They’re kind of strange. But the big-cat people are backstabbing pieces of shit.” He’s referring to (among others) the Tiger King himself, also known as Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, the former owner of Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, which Joe once claimed was the world’s largest private park for tigers.
The story has more plot twists than the entire run of Days of Our Lives: Joe Exotic owns a big-cat zoo. Carol Baskin of Big Cat Rescue wants to shut him down. She’s got big cats, too, but in an accredited sanctuary. Which is arguably a better business model: Exotic doesn’t pay well, but he does pay something, even providing a kind of squalor-cum-room-and-board. Baskin’s sanctuary is staffed, in large part, by volunteers.There’s a death threat, double-dealing of every sort, and a lot of traveling this way and that on the Tiger Belt that somehow runs between Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, South Florida, and Oklahoma. There’s even an elephant in it. And it all adds up to a most delightful diversion from the elephant in the room of our lives.
Best of all, there is an almost impossible to believe amount of current and historical footage of everyone involved, so you actually get to see the saga unfold over the five years that director Eric Goode spent chasing it. Goode is a hotelier and restaurateur (and is a partner in New York’s Waverly Inn with Air Mail’s Graydon Carter). He’s also a conservationist—he has a turtle conservancy in Ojai, California—who started with a film project about reptiles, but thankfully changed his plans when he hit this vein of documentary gold.
Joe Exotic is basically Donald Trump, without the luck or the silver spoon. They’re both reality-TV personalities. They both ran for president in 2015. They share a philosophy of personal hair care, a penchant for self-promotion, delusions of grandeur, a denial of fact, and a tendency to threaten their critics with bodily harm. They’re both “gay, gun-toting cowboy[s] with a mullet.” Whoops, that’s only how Joe Exotic describes himself. But you get my point.
How do they differ? Well, Joe Exotic is way more interesting, a little more self-aware, was apparently, for a time, self-made, and has fewer evident self-esteem issues than the man in the White House. (Can you see Donald Trump anywhere near a tiger? The man can’t even get with dogs, for God’s sake. Joe Exotic sleeps with tigers.)
“The monkey people are a little bit different,” says an unidentified man. “But the big-cat people are backstabbing pieces of shit.”
While Trump’s presidency isn’t likely to rank among the best ever, Tiger King is going to go down as one of the greatest unscripted shows of all time. The seven-part docuseries, from Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, checks off all the boxes that constitute greatness in that genre, sometimes several times over.
“People are like, every day, ‘You must have the most incredible life, to live with 187 big cats,’” says Exotic. “Does it feel good to stand on my stage with 500-pound tigers and have everybody envy you? Absolutely.” Envy might not be the right word here, but this is the disease of delusional narcissists—they think they’ve won at the game of life, when they never even made it out of the mental and emotional Little Leagues.
Trump doesn’t write music, though he’s had songs written about him. But Exotic trumps Trump here as well: he’s released several music videos, for songs with titles like “I Saw a Tiger,” “Here Kitty Kitty,” and “Pretty Woman Lover.” They’re so awful they’re amazing, a sort of auditory trompe l’oeil that Trump could only dream of pulling off. (Joe Exotic isn’t really singing in the videos, but Trump isn’t so good with teleprompters, so let’s call that one a tie.)
The series subtitle is Murder, Mayhem and Madness. I want to talk about the madness. While this documentary seems, on the surface, to take place in the same reality that most of us inhabit, upon closer analysis practically everyone in it—from the dueling protagonists to the lawyers, prosecutors, and TV reporters—seems trapped in some sort of alt-reality as refracted in a fun-house mirror. This is what makes Tiger King great: the filmmakers have stumbled onto a world that doesn’t make any sense and made sense of it for us.
As a nation, we’ve been dumbfounded by many of the things said by the likes of Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Anthony Scaramucci, and Larry Kudlow, but that crew doesn’t hold a candle to Carole Baskin, the hypocritical hippie; Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the owner of Myrtle Beach Safari, as well as a modern-day harem; and Jeff Lowe, the man who scammed Joe Exotic into signing his zoo over to him in part by renting a gaudy mansion in Las Vegas and pretending that he owned it. (Again: sound familiar?)
But my favorite character arrives in Episode Five, “Make America Exotic Again,” when our hero decides to run for president, and then, failing that, for Governor. He is Joshua Dial, Joe’s campaign manager, and he describes the experience this way: “Joe Exotic for President’ was 100 percent a complete and total publicity stunt. It was all about outrage, get as many views as possible.” Dial took the job, he says, even though he “already knew [Joe Exotic] was batshit crazy.”
What did the campaign pass out at events? Condoms with Joe Exotic’s face on them, which he explained with a kind of circular, Trumpian nonsensicality: “Political condoms: Vote for me or you’ll need these, because you’re screwed.”
As you know, Joe Exotic did not become our president in 2016; that other reality-TV star did. Today, Joe Exotic is in jail, and the man in the White House, offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rise above all the catfighting and show true leadership, has instead kept his claws out. Joe Exotic was right: We are screwed.
Duff McDonald, a New York–based writer, is working on his sixth book