A true-crime tale so weird it could only be true, concerning the exploits of armed big-cat enthusiast Joe Exotic.
Is now the best time ever for a Netflix true-crime series to grip the entire world at once? These things, as we have established time and time again, tend to do well, and they tend to do really well if they involve a thoroughly bizarre premise or animals – though ideally, as with Don’t F*** With Cats, both. The new seven-part documentary series Tiger King falls into that latter category, set as it is within the underworld of big-cat breeding, and concerning the exploits of the various eccentric characters who are a part of it.
Chief among those wacky personalities is Joe Maldonado, or Joe Exotic, a gay gun and big cat enthusiast, and much of Tiger King is set at his Oklahoma animal prison while revolving around the insistent gravity of his oddball personality. Tangents and talking heads abound, but filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin find a focus on this central figure and the lions and tigers that surround him that veers from creepy to funny and back again almost without any warning at all.
The strength of Tiger King beyond its obvious so-weird-it-has-to-be-true appeal is that it gazes upon its subjects and their flexible morality with the same kind of dispassionate assessment as, ironically, a big cat surveying a potential meal. Content to allow the events to speak for themselves and the many surprises to do the heavy lifting of keeping an audience engaged, the detached way the series frames its personalities is compelling and speaks to confident storytelling.
I heard once that there are more tigers in private captivity in Texas than there are in the wild – I have no idea if this is true, but I thought about it often throughout Tiger King, and the callous, disinterested way its animal captives became extensions of outlandish personalities; not much different from those people who dress their dogs in ridiculous outfits or keep them in their handbags. Those concerned with animal welfare will find nothing to enjoy here, but they’ll also find that the animals are not really the point of a story that, essentially, chronicles the desperate forging of a personal reputation defined by cruelty of all kinds. That kind of morbidly dispassionate undercurrent might not unite people in their ire in the way that Don’t F*** With Cats did, but Tiger King is nonetheless full of undeserving victims.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.