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Late in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, directing partners Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin are on the road discussing the latest twist in a five-year storytelling journey that eventually became a seven-episode Netflix series.
“It was sorta funny when we started,” Chaiklin remarks. “But it’s gotten really dark.”
AIR DATE Mar 20, 2020
It’s an observation that many viewers will share as they make their way through Tiger King, which uses one of my favorite documentary structures: The filmmakers begin in one place and are forced by events to make an entirely different film from the one they intended. It’s an approach that can generate an almost spontaneous vitality, with every cliffhanger feeling like it’s being experienced by director and audience alike. That’s certainly the case with Tiger King. It’s also an approach that can result in thematic unsteadiness, where the film you thought you were making and the message you thought you were imparting are waylaid, without a replacement. That’s also certainly the case with Tiger King.
The doc feels like it started life as a message film, lost the thread completely and ended up, especially in its closing installments, with a lot of hastily unfolding plot. It’s a series that might, in its ideal form, have been a substantive and nourishing meal, but premieres on Netflix as a yummy bag of potato chips.
It happens that this might be the perfect time for a bag of potato chips. And Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is unquestionably a wild series that viewers might want to devour in a single sitting. I’ll leave it to the directors to decide whether, amid what may be turn out to be great popularity for the show, they miss the desired nutritional value.
Appearing on camera frequently, Goode begins with an acknowledgment of what Tiger King might have been. His background is primarily in conservation projects and natural history films, and in 2014 he was investigating a South Florida reptile dealer when a guy showed up with a snow leopard in a cage in an otherwise nondescript van. This prompted an interest in the colorful and surprisingly visible — given how many aspects of the business are illegal — world of private big cat ownership.
A five-year filmmaking odyssey ensued, with the filmmakers focusing on wildlife entrepreneurs including Bhagavan “Doc” Antle and the mulleted figure calling himself Joe Exotic, as well as their nemesis Carole Baskin, the activist behind Big Cat Rescue.
This probably would have been enough for a fascinating series, because Antle was raised as part of the Yogaville ashram in Buckingham, Virginia, and his elevated zoo concept — The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) — is operated with a bevy of much younger women who may all be Doc’s wives, while Joe Exotic is a country-music-singing eccentric with multiple husbands and a seemingly pathological inability to stop himself from saying exactly what he’s thinking and posting it on the internet, even when those thoughts involve death threats.
They’re all great TV. And that’s before Joe Exotic, who during the course of production would run for president and for governor of Oklahoma, ends up in jail (the number of potential charges borders on limitless). It’s also before we discover that, part of his animosity toward Carole stems from suspicion that she murdered her second husband and fed him to the cats she keeps on her own pseudo zoo.
I’ve rarely watched a documentary in which it’s so blatantly obvious (and often enjoyably so) that the filmmakers are holding on for dear life, just waiting to see where they’d get pulled next. Tiger King boasts five credited editors and two co-editors, and each episode contains multiple whiplash moments in which the entire production seems to have been yanked from one version of the story to the next.
It isn’t just Doc, Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin driving the story. Over seven hours, we’re introduced to one character or relationship after another that defies belief, whether it’s Joe’s husbands John and Travis, two ostensibly straight guys whose connection to Joe is hard to fully comprehend, or Vegas-based charlatan Jeff, whose involvement with Joe’s zoo begins with using his tiger cubs to facilitate orgies, or former Inside Edition journalist Rick Kirkham, already the subject of the documentary TV Junkie and eyeing his own reality show about Joe Exotic for a potential comeback. The world of the documentary ceases to be that of Goode and Chaiklin and Oscar-winning executive producer Fisher Stevens (The Cove) and becomes a menagerie more in line with the stories that attract executive producer Chris Smith (American Movie, Fyre).
I doubt the Tiger King filmmakers would have been able to control any one of these volatile personalities, each seemingly determined to outdo the ill-conceived candor of the next. Narrative threads are dropped, corners cut, character developments rushed. The episodes are bursting with information, and it’s hard to blame the directors for not being able to squeeze in important details like the death from AIDS of Joe Exotic’s first husband or for largely misrepresenting the success, or lack thereof, of Joe Exotic’s gubernatorial campaign. Certain characters vanish for long stretches, and I’m pretty sure there’s a version of Tiger King that doesn’t need Doc Antle at all. But he’s such a great character that you don’t mind his general irrelevance to the closing episodes, particularly a finale that scraps characterization in an avalanche of plot and then stops abruptly, leaving viewers to Google the rest.
But it’s peculiar that a story which presumably began with a strong animal rights perspective becomes more of an ideological shrug. Doc Antle and Joe Exotic seem to be one side of a coin, with Carole Baskin on the other, but they’re all exploiters in different ways. It would be perfectly fair to watch all the footage of these glorious, imprisoned animals and root for a lion or tiger to eat one or more of the main human characters, who all exhibit a marked lack of humanity.
Within five minutes, you’ll understand that it’s a bad thing for any unregulated person to own more than 200 big cats, but five hours later you probably won’t have any insight into how such a thing is legal, what motivates these enthusiasts or what drives the tourists paying ridiculous amounts for selfies with with an exotic kitten. All these questions are consumed by a murder-for-hire mystery. Maybe after another five years of following the story the directors would be able to take a step back and understand the bigger picture.
And perhaps they’ll get that opportunity, because whatever flaws it might have, Tiger King is a series that viewers, especially quarantined viewers who might be feeling a little caged themselves, will tear into like a liger into a pile of expired luncheon meat from Walmart.
Premieres Friday, March 20 (Netflix)
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