In a recent phone conversation during the ongoing time of our mutual confinement, my friend Tom asked whether I had seen David Simon’s new HBO adaptation of the Philip Roth novel The Plot Against America. Of course, I replied, Anything with a good budget and a lot of Jews and I’m there. Can you believe the way it reflects America today? he asked. Roth was so prescient! Yes, yes, I said. Creeping fascism, mass hysteria, scapegoating minorities, I know, I know. But if you really want to see a show that’s about where America is today on an even more granular level, on a characterological level, I informed him, you have to see Tiger King.
Tiger King was released on Netflix two weeks prior to the day I’m typing these words and as of now it seems like most Americans with an account have watched it. Directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, the misfortune of the world has proven a boon to the filmmakers, who have been provided with a captive audience for their lurid seven-part tale of American derangement. The Internet has been on fire with hot takes. For those who have yet to experience the propulsive and addictive narrative, imagine a whiskey shot of an Elmore Leonard novel adapted by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Federico Fellini.
To summarize for those who have been baking sourdough bread and watching Jane Austen adaptations: Joe Exotic runs a down-market roadside zoo in Oklahoma where he breeds tigers. Lots and lots of tigers. Two hundred and twenty-seven of them at one point. Carole Baskin operates a big cat sanctuary in Florida. A self-styled animal rights activist, she is intent on closing down Joe’s business. Carole may also have murdered her second husband (her third one appears very devoted). Joe took exception to Carole’s crusade and their beef caused serious legal repercussions. Commenting on the action is a rogue’s gallery of big cat enthusiasts who populate the various commercial enterprises that exist in this zoological subculture/underworld, meth heads, PETA activists, a hit man, law enforcement officials, a libertarian campaign manager, and, my personal favorite, the laconic producer of a reality TV series about Joe’s world that never came to fruition because all of his footage was destroyed when an arsonist burned down the alligator enclosure (don’t ask).
Joe Exotic, whose birth name is Joseph Schreibvogel, and now goes by Joseph Maldonado-Passage, is for these filmmakers a gift from the storytelling gods. A proudly gay, polygamous, gun-toting, tiger loving, country singer with a thirst for fame so extreme there seems to be little else animating him other than physical lust (hence the polygamy). His hair is a brightly-dyed blonde mullet topped with an ever-present trucker cap or cowboy hat. His spangled shirts are of hues found on tropical birds. The body piercings are everywhere. His menagerie of lions, monkeys, bears, and tigers, tigers, and more tigers became his Internet television show which morphed into a series of country music videos followed by a campaign for the governorship of Oklahoma, all of it documented by Goode and Chaiklin who must have appeared to Joe Exotic as the embodiment of answered prayers. For this hustler, con artist, and showman, they were his long-sought ticket to the big time. After watching for five minutes, my adult daughter announced, “He’s going to be a Halloween costume.” Already, I’ve seen someone dress their five-year old in convincing Joe Exotic drag and post it on Instagram. He is officially, as they say, a thing.
To describe the series as entertaining would be to understate. It is riveting. The ingredients of outsized ambition, large animals, conspiracy, mendacity, firearms, explosions, and murder are reliable crowd-pleasers. They are deftly woven together by the filmmakers in a narrative that continues to build, each revelation seemingly more bizarre than the one that preceded it. Are there flaws? Perhaps the editors cut to Joe Exotic’s risible music videos a few too many times. There is a big cat collector in South Florida who served a dozen years for murder and claims to have been the inspiration for Tony Montana, the character played by Al Pacino in the Scarface remake, and probably deserves his own series. Why he was given so much time in this one is difficult to explain. Then there is the controversial Bhagvan “Doc” Antle, the operator of an animal park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and presents as a craftier more cleaned-up version of Joe. The story is essentially about what transpires between Joe and Carole, but Doc Antle gets, forgive me, a lion’s share of screen time. These are quibbles, though. Tiger King is thoroughly compelling television.
Predictably, the online backlash has already begun. A prominent novelist took time off from opining on Twitter about opera and Henry James to tweet:
will I watch Tiger King.
So: it’s not for everyone. But as someone whose tastes run from Mrs. Dalloway to the Coen Brothers, I could not look away. And if you’re thinking, Yes, like a car wreck, let me tell you that that is only partially true. Others have claimed that in smearing Joe Exotic all over the screen the filmmakers are “punching down,” condescending to him and his cohort for the amusement of the presumably more sophisticated Netflix viewers as if the series were the television equivalent of bear baiting (probably something Joe engaged in more than once). And certainly there is plenty onscreen for those in search of pure entertainment with what they may believe to be of no redeeming social value to enjoy. Does this render it “problematic” for viewers of a certain political stripe? Of course it does. At the same time, Tiger King is a text that can be mapped on America the way Animal Farm is mapped on the Soviet Union. Anyone reading the Los Angeles Review of Books does not have to be told that there are tens of millions of Americans who perceive our current moment in a different way than we do. Or that they embrace many of the qualities and beliefs that we abhor. It is not a stretch to say that for a large swath of our country, Tiger King is a mirror. Is it “punching down” to explore that?
A certain cohort of viewers is upset that Carole Baskin, ostensibly an animal rights activist, is presented as a “villain” intent on destroying the livelihood of the “hero.” How could someone who runs a “sanctuary” possibly be presented in a negative light, the argument goes. Isn’t she rescuing all of those huge cats? Given the murkiness surrounding the disappearance of her second husband, this seems like a willful misreading of a story in which there is more than enough bad behavior, both documented and implied, on the part of virtually everyone involved. Additionally, the filmmakers have taken hits for not coming down hard enough on Joe Exotic’s mistreatment of his animals. Yet he is depicted taking tiger cubs from their mothers’ seconds after birth, feeding his animals spoiled meat, breeding willy-nilly, selling without regard to the welfare of the animals — I could go on. As far as letting the audience know that Joe Exotic is not Dr. Doolittle, the directors did their job.
There is a case to be made that Tiger King is trashy and exploitive, although I will not be the one making it. Everyone who participated seems keen to give their version of events. The interviewees were not paid. This is not Honey Boo-boo. Does the series tell a larger story about the depredation mankind is inflicting on the animal world that builds to a shattering climax followed by a title card telling you where to send money? It does not. And yet I kept thinking about what I had just seen.
I discussed it endlessly with my family. I insisted my friends watch, over the phone of course because none of us have left the house in weeks other than to take walks or stand in line at Trader Joe’s. Yes, there were fantastic characters everywhere you looked, the narrative consistently veers in unanticipated directions; one moment you’re laughing and next thing you know a tiger is biting off someone’s arm. But what was it that so made me look forward to the next episode?
Stipulated: I am sick to death of Donald Trump. With a particularly dark combination of ineptitude and venality he is destroying America. The sooner he is gone the safer our world will be and I hope he ends up in prison.
Hey Seth Greenland, take it easy. Weren’t you talking about Tiger King?
Yes! But look: Joe Exotic is Donald Trump seen through the prism of Wal-Mart. The ridiculous coiffure, the multiple spouses, the aesthetic discernment of Saddam Hussein, the desperate showmanship, the transactional relationships, the political ambitions, the epic bullshitting, and finally the completely out of control, supercharged, pathological desire for fame, fame uber alles, are what we have been collectively enduring every day since 2016. In a Tweet more in my wheelhouse than the one I anonymously cited, the political analyst Jared Yates Sexton said: “Tiger King and Donald Trump are indictments of what America has become. A delusional, fictional empire where the pursuit of meaningless self-aggrandizement and artificial power not only corrupts individuals but destroys lives and eradicates shared society.” Those last three words take on an especially piquant hue these days.
If there is anything at the core of Joe Exotic, the filmmakers were unable to plumb it. Like Trump, Joe Exotic is a void, his pierced and tattooed body simply a fleshy shell for his insatiable appetites. Joe has converted to PETA’s cause now that his world has collapsed, and although we don’t learn this in the series I would hazard a guess that he assumed the last names of his two husbands because “Exotic” is no longer congruent with his new role of animal rights activist. As for his more powerful doppelganger, were the current occupant of the White House to ever find himself in a prison cell, one suspects his “beliefs” would be equally malleable.
Because Joe Exotic is such an outsized figure, ludicrous but slightly endearing, commedia del arte by way of Merle Haggard by way of Siegfried and Roy, we find ourselves gasping and then laughing. The laughter is at least partially a release from the ever-present tension caused by the lurking presence of all those big cats with their constant suggestion of barely contained mayhem, but we’re also laughing because he reminds us of someone who every day has become more difficult to laugh at. And in laughing at the antics of Joe Exotic we remind ourselves that in these darkest of times comedy still prowls.