Netflix has really been ramping up its original content the last few years. The streaming giant has released several mega-hits that have spread like wildfire, including STRANGER THINGS (Netflix 2016) and MAKING OF A MURDERER (Netflix 2015). These shows and movies have taken over the world and become hit phenomena that continue their success even today. This trend continued with their latest hit: THE TIGER KING.
The documentary series highlights an interesting cast of characters spread across the United States, focusing mainly on the exploits of a man named Joe Exotic. Exotic is the owner of the G. W. Zoo in Oklahoma, a big cat park where people can pay premium prices to see, and even play with, lions and tigers. Exotic has an extreme feud with conservationist Carole Baskin, who owns Big Cat Rescue and has tried to shut down Exotic’s Zoo. The series quickly devolves into chaos and mayhem as Exotic brings in increasingly crazier business partners, and is even arrested for the attempted murder of Baskin.
The show’s popularity has continued to skyrocket as people look for things to do while quarantined during the COVID-19 outbreak. Internet memes dominate social media, poking fun at Exotic’s rather unusual fashion sense and the theory that Basking killed her second husband. The show is genuinely entertaining and provides a perfect break from the real world. Everyone featured in an interview is absurdly interesting, and the story keeps you on your toes with every twist and turn. But does it do its job as a documentary?
THE TIGER KING is marketed as one of the newest documentary additions to Netflix’s lineup of original content. But as a documentary filmmaker, I have to say that this doesn’t really seem to fit the show. The first episode explains that the directors had originally meant to explore the ethics of the private ownership of big cats. It features several news clips covering the topic over the years, and director Eric Goode even provides a voiceover stating that he wanted to look into the matter. Carloe Baskins animal sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue, even released a statement saying that the directors pitched the show to her as an animal rights exposé similar to BLACKFISH (Magnolia Pictures, 2013).
The show has clearly diverted from what it originally intended to do. It started out as a genuine look at the ethical concerns of owning big cats, and ended up being something along the lines of, “Look at these silly rednecks and their drugs.” I feel that a true documentary would’ve kept its original intentions. Although the story definitely would’ve evolved as the production went on, the core issue would’ve stayed the same. THE TIGER KING should’ve still been about the issues of privately owning exotic animals. Despite this, I do genuinely believe the show is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. It just needs a slightly different perspective.
Instead of looking at this as a documentary, audiences should view it as reality TV. Yes, it’s salacious and sensational, but so is every reality show ever made. That’s what makes them so entertaining. The show might go off the rails and diverge from its original message, but this is just part of the process of making a show like this. I would argue that documentaries are meant to almost be living entities. They are able to grow and evolve as the story progresses. As documentary filmmakers learn new information, the story must be adjusted to accommodate these revelations. Oftentimes, the movie you intend on making isn’t the one you actually make. It will always be somewhat different by the time it hits theaters.
THE TIGER KING is still one of the most engrossing and entertaining shows I have seen in a very long time. Despite its flaws, it’s definitely worth a watch. It just needs a different perspective than what most people would expect. It might not be a documentary per se, but it’s one of the best examples of reality TV in recent years. It’s salacious, sensational, and pretty much ignores its original message that owning big cats is bad, but it’s one wild ride that you’ll never forget.