Review: “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness “

With the entire country under shelter-in-place for the past month, an edgy, stir-crazy nation has been desperate for new shows that could help take the edge off of the possibility of mass societal extinction.

So, it is not unusual that a show such as Tiger King, a seven part Netflix reality show/documentary would capture a captive and death fearing nation.

Before continuing, let me say that I have not completed the entire 7 episodes of Tiger King, and as of this writing, I am not sure if I will continue. But I will say this: If Dante completed his hellish gestalt in 9 circles, the Tiger King producers and directors bested Signore Alighieri’s yeoman industriousness in only 7 episodes.

[Note – I decided to finish the series. I am still not sure if this was the right decision]

Tiger King’s primary subject is Joseph Schreibvogel aka Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, aka “Tiger King.” That sentence should telegraph that with Joe Exotic at the heart of this wretched dumpster dive into “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” that Tiger King will offer no less than seven hours chock full of adrift, confused, shape shifting con men, losers, druggies, and narcissistic maniacs. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Viewers of Tiger King were treated to a veritable Murderer’s Row of morons, pinheads, and low-lifes. Brace yourselves: John Finley, Joe Exotic’s much younger former husband whom Joe picked up off the streets and who, throughout the entire series, was interviewed shirtless. Don’t ask why. Adding to his particular charm, Finlay was tattoo-covered, missing most of his upper and lower teeth, and appeared high for pretty much the entire time; Rick Kirham, a former Inside Edition reporter, who years earlier, had no trouble convincing the publicity obsessed Exotic to film his tiger park and tiger breeding exploits for a reality show, served as the titular “normal” person within Exotic’s disreputable circle, even though my guess is that Kirham would not pass a reputable background check to work for any public agency.

There was Bhagavan (Doc) Antle, a fellow tiger breeder and friend of Joe Exotic’s. Antle seemed, well, kind of normal until viewers discovered that he had at least five – some say as many as nine – wives and was a self styled guru who exploited and arguably imprisoned all the women on his park; Finally, and most depressing, there was Travis Maldonado, another street kid fresh picked up off the streets whom Exotic seduced, married, then kept high on weed and meth for years, until Maldonado either intentionally or accidentally shot himself in the head.

Finally, the Exotic saga needed an antagonist and that was a very strange woman named Carol Baskin. Baskin, who wanted to close Joe Exotic’s zoo on animal rights grounds, was initially presented as a [somewhat] sane PETA do-gooder. Though she seemed a bit batty and cat obsessed, compared to the shady and bizarre characters in Joe Exotic’s orbit, she came across as sort of normal. Ha! Then viewers were brutally disabused of that notion when, towards the end of episode one, we learned that, back in the 90’s, Baskin may have murdered her millionaire husband and fed him to her tigers. Sigh…

So, what to make of all this crass social deviancy and why has Tiger King become such a hit all across America?

First, Americans have always been attracted to weird, trashy entertainment, from P.T. Barnum’s “Fejee Mermaid” and the “Siamese twins Chang and Eng, to movie director Todd Browning’s 1932 pre-Code horror film Freaks, to Tobe Hooper’s excessively violent and wholly demented Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So, put in that context, Tiger King can be perceived as the latest in long line of slightly outré entertainment that offered average folks a safe, quick, glimpse into the weird disreputable underside of the American psyche. However, for me, the series offered three possibilities as to what this craziness was all about.

First, almost all the participants were essentially powerless people searching for some sense of self worth and purpose. The sad reality, voiced by almost all the participants in this dreary Big Cat microcosm was that by being around big cats, these folks experienced some kind of social “power”, however ephemeral and illusory. Many visitors to Joe Exotic’s park, who paid good money and waited in long lines to take a photo with a tiger, wanted that picture so they could post on line and, as some said, impress their friends and up their social cache.

Second, related to acquiring social prestige via proximity to tigers, Joe Exotic, and to a lesser extent Carole Baskin and others in the show, embraced around the clock filming of their daily lives, with or without tigers, as a form of purpose and self actualization. Joe Exotic took this to extreme lengths and it was clear that Exotic felt that only through a 24/7 filmed on-line presence did his life possess value and purpose. As a viewer, I found this aspect of Exotic’s twisted psyche to be the most disturbing, yet, given his social and economic standing, sympathetic.

Finally, the latter part of the series focused upon Joe Exotic’s forays into electoral politics and it was within this aspect that viewers can, with some validity, perceive the series, Joe Exotic himself, and the entire cultural and social milieu contained within Tiger King, as a window into the run up to and reality of, the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency.

I read last week that President Trump is “looking into” the possibility of a pardon for Joe Exotic, who eventually was convicted of animal abuse and attempted murder for hire targeting Carole Baskin and sentenced to 22 years imprisonment. Given the ethos gleaned from this production, this would be the perfect denouement.

Available on Netflix

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