Netflix

Netflix's 'Tiger King' is American exceptionalism on steroids

Right as most of the country locked down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Netflix's latest true-crime documentary Tiger King arrived, providing a kind of hypnotic distraction from the news. The series follows the rise and fall of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, whose exotic animal empire unraveled over the course of several drug-fueled years of mismanaged finances, political campaigns, and generalized chaos.

The seven episode limited series opens with an introduction to the world of "animal people." We learn that in contrast to "monkey people," the community surrounding big cats — lions, tigers, and sometimes ligers — is a unique type of unhinged. The stage is quickly set for the multi-pronged intrigue that Netflix has codified into its true-crime sagas, like Making a Murderer and Don't F**k With Cats. We meet Carole Baskin, the proprietor of the Big Cat Rescue animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, who serves as a foil to Mr. Exotic. A murder-for-hire plot against her sets much of the show's mystery in motion.

Then there's the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which was introduced in the House last year. The piece of legislation looms large over the series, as it's championed by Baskin and animal rights groups like PETA, nemeses of Joe Exotic. He sees the regulation, which would all but eliminate the private zoo industry, as an existential threat to his rights. At one point, he threatens Waco-style violence if passed. There's also a cloud of mystery surrounding Baskin, who may or may not have been responsible for her husband Don Lewis's bizarre disappearance. As the show's title suggests, it's a story of murder, mayhem, and madness. It's ultimately a story about America.

Joe Exotic, understanding the distinctly American pastime of self-mythologizing, spends much of the show building his persona. The producers achieve something remarkable in the series' overall framing. One of the characters featured, Rick Kirkham, worked with Joe on his Alex Jones-esque webseries, Joe Exotic TV. In what must have been a documentarian's dream, Joe Exotic was already being filmed almost non-stop. Unbelievable footage of various moments in the saga take the absurdity of the series to new heights.

Like in the second episode, when a tiger dislodges one of Joe's staffer's arms. We see Joe inform the guests at the animal park of the incident after the grizzly scene unfolds. It's shot like a segment from Cops, with frenetic camerawork adding to the near mythic chaos of the ordeal. Commentators online have pointed out that Joe manages to pull off an impressive outfit during the madness, and one can't help but wonder if he didn't relish in the opportunity to look like an action hero on camera.

Meanwhile, the employee in question, Kelci Saffery, remains a loyal devotee, opting to amputate as opposed to undergoing years of surgery. Her logic is that a speedy resolution would avoid the onslaught of bad press to Joe's park. It's a chilling introduction to the many ways in which he maintained a level of control over those around him. The people in the exotic animal community are inherent outliers — freaks and weirdos, if you will. And what develops is something of a family bonded by difference. Nevermind the fact that they were paid so poorly that they scrounge for food among the expired meats served to the tigers.

Joe Exotic is American exceptionalism personified. And it comes as no surprise that he's emerged from all of this the people's champion.

Joe's singular grip over his employees is most evident in his sexual relationships. Early on in the series, he says he knew he was gay at a young age and describes how his father was so ashamed he made him promise not to attend his funeral. You feel for him as he describes meeting his first husband at the zoo, the quirkily handsome John Finlay, who sports several missing teeth and a charming smile. Finlay came to work for Joe at the age of 23, inspired by a love of animals. Before long, the two become involved, and their relationship at first seems beautiful — two strange men united by a love of animals.

Travis Maldonado, who at age 19 comes to work at the park, soon catches Joe's eye as well. Before long he opens his relationship with John to include Travis. We're presented with a seemingly functional three-person marriage.

The problem is that these two young men don't identify as gay. Around the second half of the series, things turn from bizarre and fun to dark and unsettling. The tonal shift arrives when we learn more about Travis, a California expat who just wants to get high. Drugs play an outsized role throughout the series, and in Travis's plight we learn how Joe Exotic, more than an outlandish eccentric, has many qualities of a predator. One explanation for how Joe keeps Travis around, for example, is that he supplies him with meth.

In true American fashion, all of these men love to play with guns. During one scene that's equal parts spellbinding and unnerving, we watch a zoo employee's face on security footage as he witnesses Travis accidentally shoot himself in the head. The subsequent funeral is as much a display of Joe Exotic's showmanship as it is an actual memorial. In a few short months he will have found another young employee-turned-lover.

The producers approach the complicated tale like a Russian matryoshka doll, with each episode unearthing more questions. As the show progresses, we learn about Joe Exotic's bizarre political career, which ultimately helped lead to his undoing, but also served as an eerie metaphor for our political moment. At one point, a Last Week Tonight clip is used to present the context of Joe's campaign. John Oliver points out that the 2016 election featured two of the most hated figures in American politics and served up Joe Exotic as a quirky third option. Except Joe Exotic might be more representative of American politics than we'd like to give him credit for. A gay polygamist with a gun and drug problem who hates taxes, regulation, and at least one woman: Carole Baskin.

Since the show's release, it has jumped to the top of Netflix's newly unveiled Top 10. The battle between Baskin and Joe Exotic, which culminated in an alleged hit ordered against Ms. Baskin, is the subject of countless memes online. Most of the internet's ire has fallen on Baskin, though there should frankly be more room for a view of her as a survivor. Early on she describes being sexually assaulted as a teenager and fleeing an abusive relationship in her early twenties. (She says she escaped by throwing a potato at her ex). Her husband, who propositioned her by asking her to take a ride with him in his car in the middle of the night, was 22 years older than her and a notorious cheater. The series also makes a decent case that he was planning something in order to skirt losing any money in a divorce.

Nonetheless, Tiger King's central tension, between the "animal rights people," led by Baskin, and Joe Exotic, has made for a fitting prism from which to view the nation as a whole. Joe Exotic is American exceptionalism personified. And it comes as no surprise that he's emerged from all of this the people's champion.

First and foremost, America is a land of spectacle. Its culture is rooted in the commodification of the self. We invented reality TV, social media, and influencers — permutations on the logic of our national identity: cashing in at all costs. Joe Exotic embodies that spirit. Since Tiger King was released earlier this month, the former zoo manager currently serving a 22-year sentence for a litany of charges, ranging from murder-for-hire to the killing and sale of several tigers, has experienced that unique brand of American fame. He's the subject of blog posts about his clothes, his music videos, and his sex life. He's also a victim of his own success. A truly American tragedy.