‘Tiger King’ TV Review: Stranger-Than-Fiction Story Shocks & Awes
What is there left to say about Tiger King? Created by documentarians Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, the absurd story of Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage — more commonly known as Joe Exotic — and his strange place in the even stranger world of big cat zoos seems to have captivated viewers the whole nation over.
And it’s not hard to see why. Goode and Chaiklin do their best to milk every ounce of drama out of the story — though the series is ostensibly about Joe Exotic’s attempt to hire a contract killer to murder conservationist Carole Baskin, it takes over 5 of its 7 episodes to even get to that plot line. Along the way, the viewer is greeted with stories of polygamy, sex cults, immoral labor practices, arson, fraud, and so, so much more. The directors here do a good job of appearing neutral and high-minded about it all, but the real appeal of Tiger King is its Enquirer-esque showcasing of the kind of smut not usually found on popular television.
If there is a criticism to make of Tiger King, it lies with Goode and Chaiklin’s interest in all of the intrigues of the story. Sure, the story of Joe Exotic, Baskin, and company is deeply entertaining, but the way it’s told here barely touches on the extreme amount of abuse the big cats at the center of it all seem to be undergoing. Even the stories of humans being abused seem only to be employed for dramatic effect — the documentary almost universally gives the final world to figures like Bhagavan Antle, another big cat zoo owner with a litany of issues.
That being said, the figures at the center of it all are so deeply engaging that the series never really loses any steam along the way. Joe Exotic is fantastically enigmatic, impossible to pin down yet so hard to look away from. Carole Baskin is less multi-faceted; the filmmakers mostly portray her as a bit of a sociopath, but she remains a good foil for Joe’s mania. The supporting characters don’t slouch either, with everyone when from a reality show producer to Joe’s presidential campaign manager (yes, really) commanding the camera more than most professional actors can.
There is much to entertained by in Tiger King, but there is also much to be disappointed in. Goode and Chaiklin seem to have lost interest in making a hard-hitting piece of real activist art, instead creating some real-life pulp fiction instead. It’s about as fun of a watch as you could imagine, but you’ll probably leave it all feeling a little icky — Joe’s mullet has that effect on people.