During one of the many FaceTime chats that fill my evening calendar, my best friend Andy remarked, "You have to watch 'Tiger King.' You lived in Florida, so you will love it."
Tigers? Florida? I was intrigued. What is "Tiger King"? Having literally no idea what it was about, I watched the trailer later that night. This tweet perfectly sums up my reaction:
"Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness" is the newest Netflix obsession America is currently binging. Here's what you need to know about the show that as of Wednesday afternoon, was the No. 1 streamed show on Netflix in the United States.
What is "Tiger King"?
"Tiger King" follows the story of Joe Exotic, real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage, who claimed to be the nation's most prolific breeder of tigers. The flamboyant animal enthusiast was the owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in rural Wynnewood, Oklahoma. It was first a horse farm until he converted it into one of the largest private zoos in the country.
The seven-part Netflix docuseries looks at the bizarre celebrity of Exotic, along with the entire industry of big cat breeding that involves a cast of colorful characters, including a former cocaine drug lord who may have been the inspiration for "Scarface;” Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, a "Big Love"-kind of patriarch; and Carole Baskin (more on her later); and how they're all connected to one another via their obsession for big cats.
In the first episode, you learn that Exotic ends up in prison for a murder-for-hire plot to kill Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue. She herself has an interesting past. She was a prime suspect in the 1997 disappearance of her then-husband, self-made millionaire Don Lewis. Relatives of Lewis questioned at the time whether Baskin may have been involved with his disappearance, and some even suggested she may have fed his remains to her tigers.
Doc Antle also has an interesting story. The wildlife preserve owner is portrayed in the docuseries as having multiple girlfriends living with him on a compound where exotic animals roam free.
What inspired "Tiger King"?
"Tiger King" co-directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin started filming after Goode visited an animal dealer in South Florida and discovered a snow leopard in the back of a scalding hot van. Goode told Vanity Fair, “That set us on this journey to really understand what was going on with the private ownership of big cats in this country."
“The tiger people, the reptile people, they all have sort of unique subcultures. Kind of like 'Best in Show,'” he added, referring to the mockumentary about five entrants in a prestigious dog show. “What we started understanding in the big cat world is (the owners) have a unique commonality between them, which is, ‘Look at me’… (they want) the status of having a tiger and the attention that gets them.”
Baskin has spoken out against the filmmakers, slamming the documentary in a post on her blog.
Baskin wrote, "When the directors of the Netflix documentary 'Tiger King' came to us five years ago they said they wanted to make the big cat version of 'Blackfish' (the documentary that revealed abuse at SeaWorld) that would expose the misery caused by the rampant breeding of big cat cubs for cub petting exploitation and the awful life the cats lead in roadside zoos and back yards if they survive."
She continued, "There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that the docuseries not only does not do any of that but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers."
(This only makes me want to watch it more.)
What are critics saying about "Tiger King"?
Critics seems to be torn about whether or not "Tiger King" is more sideshow than substance.
"I’d describe it as like watching a slow-motion car crash, but only if that car crashed into a jet plane and then both tumbled into an oil tanker," wrote Sam Adams of Slate. "As with a lot of compulsions, indulging it may not leave you feeling satisfied as much as spent, with a vague feeling of having done something that’s not entirely healthy. But at the moment, anything that keeps you indoors and in your right mind is a blessing, and if it increases your resistance to slick-talking hucksters, that’s an immunity we could stand to reinforce as well."
Honestly, with times as surreal as they are right now, anything to get our minds off of our newsfeeds is gladly accepted with arms open wide.
"Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness" is currently streaming on Netflix.