This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Hey, all you cool cats and kittens. If you, too, have spent every waking moment this past week thinking about whether Carole Baskin fed her husband to the tigers, have I got a post for you.
The word-of-mouth surrounding Netflix’s latest true-crime series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, has been so powerful it’s transcended social distancing to get every person I know hooked on the demented tale of polygamist, gay, country-singing, zoo-owning, presidential candidate and murder-for-hire felon with a bleached blonde mullet, Joseph Schreibvogel Maldonado-Passage—aka “Joe Exotic”—and his arch-nemesis: preeminent cat lady, busy body, wearer of flower crowns, and widow of suspicious circumstances, the truly inimitable Carole Baskin.
Despite that Stefon bit of a plot description, Tiger King is, in many ways, what we’ve come to expect from one of these Netflix shows. That is to say, it is entertaining enough while egregiously overhyped: erratically paced, stretched too thin, plagued by format confusion—Why is the director suddenly in the scene? Now there are reenactments?—and not sure of its ultimate point. (“Uhh...animal conservation, I guess?” seems to be the gist of the hasty last few minutes.)
But with all due respect to Love Is Blind’s Jessica, it’s safe to say that no other Netflix series has ever, or could ever, post a central subject as miraculously captivating as Joe Exotic, the broke-ass Donald Trump of the wild cat community, and the greatest entertainer of our time. Well, of these strange, caged times, at least.
For the five people who have yet to hear about this actual circus of a TV show, Joe Exotic is this lunatic of a man who, over the last two decades, made a living by breeding tiger cubs and running a dilapidated zoo showcasing dozens of big cats in the tragic mud of rural Oklahoma.
At the start, you’re absorbed enough in the scandals and illicit politics of this wild cat community. It’s a goldmine of “can’t make this stuff up” lunacy, with each turn snapping your neck with a jarring revelation: Cults! Polygamy! Drug lords! (Though maybe the wildest revelation: Tigers aren’t that expensive!)
But the narrative throughline stems from the catty—get it?—turf war between Joe and Carole Baskin, a woman who owns a similar wild cat sanctuary in Florida, but who operates it from a holier-than-thou position. She believes she is a conservationist while Joe is abusing and exploiting the animals—oh, and by the way, don’t believe any of those rumors that say she murdered her ex-husband.
Then, just when you’re titillated because a murder subplot has entered the room, it’s revealed that it’s not that murder the show is about, but another attempted one.
Normally, I would be disgusted by Tiger King’s entire tone. It doesn’t take the most astute cultural critic to point out that the real zoo here is the show’s subjects, a crass kind of poverty porn that spins systemic downtroddenness into hillbilly laughs and serves up the interests, relationships, and realities of rural America into something to be gawked at and amused by.
People are subtitled even though they’re speaking English. Guns are accessories more common than purses. A startling number of plot points revolve around either Walmart or Applebee’s. One main character inexplicably never puts on a shirt while being interviewed, another does his while taking a bubble bath in denim jeans, while several others are noticeably high while speaking. Color me shocked when meth shows up in the narrative.
But Joe Exotic seems to represent something removed from the questionable ethics of all that. For one, there’s the fact that, as we learn within minutes of the premiere, he is a convicted criminal. But there’s also something cathartic in the megalomania behind his takedown, like a certain kind of wish-fulfillment for a redneck Donald Trump.
To begin with, there’s the hair. Who knew there could be a wiry, nature-defying blonde mane more transfixing than Trump’s own bird nest? Watching Joe Exotic after all these years of Trump makes me wonder if there is some psychological correlation between tacky aesthetics and their very particular kind of delusions of grandeur.
It’s that thing where you’re watching someone unhinged and so uncouth—peddling conspiracy theories, lobbying unfounded accusations despite being a crook himself, and constantly playing the victim—and are riveted to the point of understanding how some are hypnotized into finding the demeanor appealing.
Then there’s the petty fixation Joe has on Carole Baskin. His life is imploding, but he won’t relent in his life mission to publicly insult and embarrass her to as large an audience as possible, redirecting the blame for everything wrong in his life on her. It’s a familiar nadir of pathetic, for sure, but it’s so entirely... watchable.
The stakes are lower—I’m watching a Netflix series, not a White House press conference—but, god help me, at some point during Tiger King, the appeal that some see in #45 finally clicked. What makes the Joe Exotic saga more palatable is the presence of actual repercussions for this behavior: legitimate and deserved criminal punishment. What a fantasy to escape to, even if just for seven episodes.
Anyway, that’s my close read on Tiger King. I’m sure the last thing anyone wanted is a “Tiger King in the age of Trump” take, but when we’re living through this nightmare right now, how can you not? Anyway, when all of this is over, I’m going to have a party and exclusively play Joe Exotic’s country songs. You’re all invited.