While we’re all stuck at home, Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” has absolutely dominated online discourse, because of the overall strangeness of the docuseries’ subject matter (Joe Exotic, the G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Okla., and his feud with Big Cat Rescue CEO Carole Baskin), and because many of us just need an entertaining distraction in these trying times.
“Tiger King” certainly delivers on that front. The show delves into the small slice of the world of exotic big cats that Exotic, Baskin, and his mentor, Doc Antle inhabit. It’s a show in which Baskin employs unpaid laborers through a manipulative volunteer system, in which Antle’s employees aren’t allowed to take time off ever and his female workers are pressured to sleep with him, and where Exotic essentially gets his workers straight off the street, giving them opportunity they might never have gotten otherwise, although their working conditions are less than ideal.
This show has a gay throuple, a woman who has her arm torn off by a tiger who returns to work shortly afterwards, and a murder-for-hire plot that landed Exotic in jail. It also features Exotic’s budding country music career, a reality TV show that never was, and his runs for both president of the United States and governor of Oklahoma.
I’m not the first to say this, but I feel like it’s an apt describer. “Tiger King” is a dumpster fire you can’t look away from. It documents such a miraculous mess that is the life of Joe Exotic that is absolutely perfect for the age of COVID-19, where we could all use some escapism.
Streaming shows and films have this trend of taking over the internet for a while. In December, Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian” did this. Later that month, Netflix’s “The Witcher” had that effect. “You” Season 2, “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” and Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” also did this. Perhaps “Stranger Things” was the first streaming show to become a cultural phenomenon.
Most of these shows and films have their popularity fizzle out when the next best thing comes out, which more often than not is either the next big streaming hit or a large theatrical release such as a Marvel film. The thing is, because of theater closures and the overall barrenness of April television scene, nothing has come close to challenging “Tiger King.” It helps that there’s nothing quite like it anywhere, and the show has ignited a hunger for Exotic-Baskin content, as the show’s popularity has quickly greenlit a biopic based on their feud starring Kate McKinnon, and a sequel series produced by Investigation Discovery.
The conditions for “Tiger King” were exactly right for it to dominate popular culture, from its inane ability to spawn memorable memes, to our heightened desire to dive into anything that distracts from current events, to the elimination of its competition in the theater, to the fact that, more so than ever, so many people have enough free time to commit to a five and a half hour-long show.
I look forward to more “Tiger King” content and other wacky projects from Netflix. My $12.99 subscription has given me a lot of joy in the past year, far more than the hundreds of dollars I’ve spent at the theater. As I’ve said before: Netflix, keep these unique original projects coming.