Critic's Notebook: 'Tiger King' and 'The Last Dance' Were Quarantine Breakouts, But Are They Emmy-Worthy?

With a nation in lockdown, these two docuseries became communal TV touchstones — but was their success a function of timing or quality?
Tiger, Last: Courtesy of Netflix. Hillary: Courtesy of Hulu.

A debt of gratitude is owed to Netflix's Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness and ESPN's The Last Dance, but is it a debt that needs to be repaid in Emmys?

It's obviously an overstatement to declare that, in the aftermath of the nation (and world) going into COVID-19-related quarantine in mid-March, Tiger King and The Last Dance saved America or even that they saved television. However, it definitely isn't an overstatement to suggest that in a moment of basically unprecedented uncertainty and societal alienation, these two long-form documentaries offered the strangest of communal experiences and, for brief windows, gave us things to talk about other than social distancing and mask etiquette.

Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin's Tiger King offered zany distraction in the form of larger-than-life (cartoonish, really) characters from polyamorous, mullet-loving, guitar-strumming Joe Exotic to cult-leading zookeeper Doc Antle to frustrated reality producer Rick Kirkham. There was a regular torrent of bizarre twists and cliffhangers.

Tiger King premiered at the very beginning of the quarantine — when viewers were starting to feel like caged animals themselves — and within days it was entrenched as the sort of instant touchstone most nonfiction shows can only dream of becoming. The adoration for Tiger King skipped right over whether or not the series was actually any good as a piece of formal storytelling. If the directors' goal was to capture the sensation of careening wildly on an untethered roller-coaster, they succeeded admirably, but any attempt to cohesively develop character or theme failed entirely. Somehow a series that surely started out with an animal rights message mostly spawned tawdry tabloid conversations about whether or not Carole Baskin killed her husband, thirsty online postings about John Finlay's new teeth and a truly awful bonus cash-in episode hosted by Joel McHale.

It may not have saved TV, but The Last Dance surely saved the livelihoods of dozens of professional sportswriters who, in the absence of actual athletic endeavors to report on, got to spend five weeks masquerading as television critics: doing recaps and listicles and getting content out of every scrap of Jason Hehir's 10-part ESPN series. Although The Last Dance sparked documentary ethics questions about whether Michael Jordan, as both subject and production partner, had too much control over the series' treasure trove of footage covering the last championship season for the Chicago Bulls, few would deny that the show was an astonishing amount of fun and offered regular reminders of the joy of sports. Or just, you know, joy.

Were there accusations that Jordan was embellishing some facets of his legendary run and straight-up lying at times? Sure! Were former teammates and rivals offended by how their contributions were presented? Absolutely! I was more bothered by how entirely absent the city of Chicago was as a character, an element that could have made The Last Dance feel like more than a story of a basketball and marketing phenomenon. Still, one can't question ESPN's brilliance in rushing the Last Dance premiere from June to April, where it sated appetites and put the show into the race for the documentary or nonfiction series Emmy.

There's no doubt that if the Emmy race comes down to contributions to the culture, Tiger King and The Last Dance have no real competition, but the critic in me has to ask the question: If Emmys are supposed to honor quality and not just visibility, can't we do better?

The TV Academy's categorizations for nonfiction TV are often strange and confusing and this happens to be a year in which most of the shows that would be competition for The Last Dance and Tiger King have flaws of their own.

If the stories of Joe Exotic and Scottie Pippen were boosted by their being released at a moment when audiences were homebound, Nanette Burstein's Hulu two-parter Hillary was probably a victim of its release timing. Hulu surely felt that a March 6 debut for a four-hour political documentary would be perfectly synced to the peak of the Democratic presidential primaries. Instead, Super Tuesday made Joe Biden a prohibitive frontrunner and the coronavirus dominated headlines. Hillary got a little buzz from Hilary Clinton's withering comments about Bernie Sanders, but when a one-off quote steals thunder from the overall message of a documentary, you know its impact has been limited.

"Limited" would also be my assessment of the effect of Ken Burns' Country Music, rightly or wrongly. Surely embraced by music fans, this epic and in-depth cultural examination was still treated as somehow more niche-y than his chronicles of various wars or even baseball.

HBO's McMillions stirred up some initial excitement, before viewers realized that the reenactment-heavy series was two hours of movie stretched over five hours. Disney+'s The Imagineering Story was probably the new streamer's best early offering not to feature Baby Yoda, but it's also essentially a commercial, albeit one with tremendous access. And Netflix has a long string of documentary series that are likely going to end up in the shadow of Tiger King, a group that includes the powerful Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, the differently crazy Don't F*** with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer and the briefly buzzy Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez.

Ultimately, Tiger King and The Last Dance will probably benefit from there not being a frontrunner mixing universal acclaim and zeitgeist-tapping currency. I'd suggest Emmy voters check out Apple TV+'s comprehensive and emotional Visible: Out on Television, HBO's harrowing and all-too-relevant Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children and Showtime's nuanced and mysterious Murder in the Bayou as just a few contenders that deserve at least as much discussion.

A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.