SURREAL, STRANGE WORLD OF “TIGER KING” A NATIONAL OBSESSION
A TV Review by Tim Riley
“TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS” ON NETFLIX
Pop culture is thriving right now on Netflix if for no other reason than most of the people not involved with essential businesses are trapped at home and tuning into programming that might not have gained a lot of traction otherwise. Could that be the reason for the sudden national obsession with “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness?” What explanation is there for the fascination with all the misfits on the margins of society that inhabit the strange world of exotic animals held in captivity?
Everyone seems to be talking about a character named Joe Exotic, the gun-toting redneck, gay polygamist with the bleached mullet who runs the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma.We are in the midst of a global pandemic with almost daily White House briefings from the coronavirus task force, and a presumed journalist asks President Trump if he’s considering a pardon for Joe Exotic now languishing in jail.
On to more a serious matter is the question of whether Joe Exotic, whose real name keeps changing depending on the shedding of his birth surname to adopt a combination of names of the men he happens to marry, has obtained his long sought-after celebrity status thanks to Netflix.If he were not in prison right now, would Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, be running for political office again, as he once did in his quixotic campaigns for president and then governor of Oklahoma in 2018, where he came in third in the Libertarian Party primary?
The seven-episode docuseries, featuring interviews of Joe and his employees, the oddball assortment of competitors, his campaign manager, shady businessmen, law enforcement officials, and his greatest nemesis, raises more questions than answers about everything. That Joe Exotic ends up in the Grady County jail is no surprise since the first episode establishes that he’s getting three square meals a day while languishing in a cell probably much more confined than the cages for his tigers.
Bragging of the over 200 tigers and other big cats in captivity at his animal park, the flamboyant showman Joe Exotic, dressed in colorful unbuttoned print shirts with a gun holster strapped to his waist, finances his operation by charging visitors to cuddle and play with tiger cubs. Exotic’s tourist attraction draws the ire of his chief nemesis, Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue based in Tampa, Florida, who maintains a sanctuary with her third husband Howard, who oddly enough could pass for a Prince Charles lookalike.
In her view, Carole maintains that the petting zoo aspect of the cubs which may make for great selfies is a form of abuse, but the real story is how these creatures become disposable when trafficked to other collectors.As the series moves along, the bitter rivalry between Joe and Carole reaches such a disturbing level of hatred that the Oklahoma zookeeper regularly features the animal rights activist in various states of being harmed or killed in his Internet series of Joe Exotic TV.Part of what motivates Joe’s extreme vitriolic behavior towards Carole, culminating in the murder-for-hire plot that lands him in the hoosegow for 22 years, is an outlandish conspiracy theory that she killed her previous husband and fed his remains to tigers.
The third episode has plenty of focus on the 1997 disappearance of kooky Carole’s second husband, the millionaire Don Lewis who spent a lot of time on frequent trips to Costa Rica. Exotic was only too eager to spread innuendos of foul play. Other eccentric characters in the exotic animal trade are also highlighted and interviewed. The middle-aged Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, fashioning himself as a cult leader married to several young women, runs an animal park in Myrtle Beach.
Not to be outdone in the polygamy game, Exotic holds a wedding ceremony for his marriage to two men at the same time, one of which is the young Travis Maldonado who meets a tragic fate when demonstrating wrongly off-camera that a gun without its clip would not fire. Another animal collector, featured only too briefly, is a former Miami drug lord Mario Tabraue, who claims that he inspired Al Pacino’s murderous character in “Scarface.” It’s astonishing that he comes off as more normal than others in Exotic’s weird orbit.
As for a shady businessman in the mix, enter Jeff Lowe, a felon who forms a partnership with a nearly bankrupt Joe to keep the animal park functioning and ends up in a bind for sneaking tigers into a Vegas hotel room. We’ve only scratched the surface of the eccentric characters, some of them missing limbs and others lacking a good dental plan, that populate the surreal, strange world of the “Tiger King,” that is so appropriately subtitled as “Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”
The bottom line is that this Netflix docuseries is akin to watching a train wreck or a hundred car pileup on the interstate. Many of us have nothing more pressing to do than observe in disbelief.