“Tiger King”: The Story No One Could Make Up

A Critical Look at the Most Popular Documentary Series of the Year

Andrew Mello, News Editor

Typically, when watching a documentary series, the show covers its last piece of material and footage somewhere around episode two or three, and then shifts its focus towards speculation. This is not the way Netflix’s smash hit Tiger King plays out. It is not until the very last episode that you feel you have perspective on the whole series, as there always seems to be another layer—and another guilty party gone unpunished. While most documentaries run out of steam when they run out of material, Tiger King stands apart as you realize you couldn’t make this up if you tried.

While the titular Tiger King refers to the show’s famed tiger wrangler and less famed presidential hopeful Joe Exotic, the mullet-sporting personality only becomes a single pawn in a much bigger game. Instead, the seeming instigator of these events would be one Carole Baskin, a wildlife activist with a powerful legal team behind her. As she rails against Exotic for his breeding and sale of tigers, Exotic’s retorts begin to dip more and more into libelous territory, as he brings up the mysterious path Baskin took in obtaining her ill gotten fortune. While the supposed past crimes of Carole Baskin have been trivialized by much of social media, spawning millions of memes, it’s worth stating that these accusations include the murder of her ex-husband, who she’d have you believe disappeared off the face of the earth and her compound full of savagely carnivorous tigers. Frustrated with Exotic’s “slanderous” accusations, the show documents just what lengths she went to make Exotic’s voice disappear. 

Until you’ve been able to see the full story from every account, you might still be thinking to yourself that none of the players on the board seem capable of becoming criminal masterminds. Resembling the white trash equivalent to L.A. Confidential, it’s hard to predict who’s most to blame as the lineup of shady characters only seems to grow. 

[Tiger King] is so outlandish that if framed as a film, it would enter the realm of fantasy.

By the time the final episode pulls into view, the expanse of the documentary’s scope is almost daunting to recall in its entirety. From Mrs. and Mr. Carole Baskin’s legal pressure and targeting, to Exotic’s business partner Jeff Lowe’s framing of Exotic in a murder-for-hire plot, the show extends into more and more fantastic territory as it goes on. Even such outside forces as Exotic’s fellow Tiger breeder Doc Antle, who by all reports seems to be running a sex cult behind the gates of his compound under the guise of conservation, are included. It’s difficult to find morality when the only people who seem to have any sense of right and wrong are the same people waiting until it’s too late to step in and intervene. What unfolds instead is a web of connections, through cause and effect, so outlandish that if framed as a film, would enter the realm of fantasy.

Despite hopes for such a film adaption, I couldn’t see it matching up to the simple enjoyment of seeing such larger than life personalities on display much the same as the tigers are for the visitors of Joe Exotic’s Zoo. Watching from a safe distance, it’s easy to laugh at the squabbles and online bickering of these people as they dig into each other with such vicious intent. However, if you were to step into their cage, you’d be quick to remember just why they’re kept behind bars.

Free Joe Exotic.