With Joe and Carole both sidelined, Tiger King 2 is definitely lacking something when compared to the first season. Still, it’s an undeniably compelling and impressively bizarre descent into exotic eccentricity.
This review of Tiger King Season 2 is spoiler-free.
As I’ve already said in my coverage of Tiger King 2, the show’s appeal is how it is built on a bedrock of never-ending eccentricity. Just when you think you’ve peeled back the weirdest layer, another bizarre development occurs and tips the whole case on its head once again. The story is ostensibly true, even though most of this season comprises he-said-she-said hearsay, but it’s structured like a narrative drama, with each episode ending on a tantalizing cliff-hanger, as if daring you to stop binging. Unlike the favorable (for the show) circumstances surrounding Tiger King: Murder, Madness and Mayhem, this five-part follow-up outing arrives in a world which isn’t predominantly locked down, so one assumes it won’t be gobbled quite as eagerly, even by fans. But that isn’t to say it’s without merit, and even if that sense of “this can’t possibly be real” amazement isn’t quite as prevalent this time around, the show still has the capacity to surprise and startle.
For the uninitiated, a brief primer: The so-called Tiger King is Joe Exotic, the owner of an exotic animal zoo in Oklahoma, and a determinedly eccentric promiscuous gay cowboy with a mullet whose life was a parade of trauma and lawless extravagance. That is until he was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for plotting to assassinate his arch-nemesis, a Florida tiger park owner and animal rights activist called Carole Baskin, who is equally bizarre, just in different ways, and may well have murdered her still-missing husband Don Lewis and fed him to their animals.
This, then, is an incredibly strange show, and it’s no more grounded in this second outing. Joe, though, is in prison, and all we get from him is his voice crackling down phone lines – some episodes don’t even feature him at all, or at least barely, and you get the sense sometimes, even in a scant five episodes, that the show is looking for subjects to unpack while it saves its big revelations for later. The context is nice, though. The first episode delves briefly into Joe’s past growing up as the son of an abusive farm owner in the deeply homophobic rural South, and the insight into his pathology is welcome, even if it hardly absolves him in all the deplorable things he has done since.
As Joe is largely absent from Tiger King 2, so is Carole Baskin, who not only refused to participate but is actively attempting to sue Netflix for the use of private video footage, although almost all of the stuff used here was uploaded by her to YouTube. The content is exhaustive but consists mostly of her reading aloud her diary entries dating back several years. Baskin is still a compelling figure because she’s obviously bonkers, but as it turns out, the secret gangster life of her husband, who was building an insane illegal menagerie in Costa Rica by funneling dirty money through various property investments, provides enough meat for at least a couple of episodes. If Carole didn’t kill Don, someone else did, and plenty of people had good reason.
Eventually Tiger King Season 2 resorts to Making A Murderer’s approach, implying government malfeasance as being integral to Joe Exotic’s conviction in order to stoke up outrage, much like how Eric Love and Team Tiger are depicted in the first episode trying to secure a pardon for Joe from Donald Trump, mostly as a self-promotional gimmick. Then again, it might well have happened that way, which is precisely why Tiger King remains compelling even after a year of Joe and Carole being at the forefront of popular culture, a fate that one imagines both of them craved.
The truth is that if any of this is true, it’s quite a remarkable indictment of the world we live in. And I’m sure some of it is. Parts are, obviously, trash exploitation, and other parts are just petty games of one-upmanship and slander, and while it’s undeniably entertaining, it isn’t exactly true crime either. But the facts are that at least one man is missing, presumed dead, one man is in jail, presumed innocent, and someone, somewhere knows more about it all than they’re letting on. If it takes another season to find out who, well… I don’t think Netflix will mind.