Image by Swapnisha Joshi
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Americans have retreated indoors, where we are bored out our wits, and obsessed with the idea of either an impending Wuhan Armageddon or Greatest Depression. Perhaps both. Here is something to compete for our attention with the twin doomsdays: a TV documentary about murder, sex, power and predators on the verge of extinction.
Tiger King assembles years of footage of private zoo owner Joe Exotic (née Joseph Schreibvogel), his entourage and rivals. The seven-part series begins by showcasing quirky characters who keep big cats for pets and don’t wear underwear, and then quickly dives into far less lighthearted subject matter, like gigolos hooked on meth and people who feed their husbands to tigers. Series producer Rick Kirkham initially filmed the project as a reality series about Joe Exotic’s efforts at wildlife conservation, but it didn’t get picked up by networks, and went to the web at the time of filming. He later recut the footage for the Netflix documentary.
I was hoping Tiger King would signal the end of reality TV, my least favorite film genre: I don’t like its sentimentality, the way it amplifies every emotion and gets its audiences glued to the screen for their fix of drama provided by exhibitionists. It’s transparently obvious that the drama is staged and the emotions inauthentic. It doesn’t offer much for the brain.
Tiger King, on the other hand, is staged and cut in a way that unsentimentally displays the unmitigated vapid ghoulishness of the characters and therefore makes a far more powerful impression. A reality series would dwell on Cheryl Maldonado’s grief over the death of her son, and Joe’s junkie three-way husband, Travis. What could be more terrible than a mother’s grief? A proper reality show would have milked it for every tear. The documentary did something better—it presented a set of repulsive misfits who epitomize everything cultural elites have ever suspected was wrong with flyover country. Nearly every character has a dark side—including Kirkham, who has struggled with substance abuse himself. The show is a never-ending parade of scheming, kinks and every imaginable moral failing, topped off with tackiness. A reality series would try to elicit emotion, but Tiger King just invites the viewer to stare into the abyss of John Finlay’s meth mouth and contemplate the extent of his transgressions. While reality shows make me feel embarrassed for watching, the documentary makes me feel hollow inside.
The documentary aired at a time when the Wuhan quarantine had put a hard stop to consumerism. Passing time in the conspicuous consumption of cheap goods shadily made in a country whose totalitarian bosses unleashed the pandemic onto the world is not an option under the shelter-in-place regime. A re-evaluation of our routines and habits became the order of the day. And if the plastic junk we buy at the dollar stores is the product of human suffering, what about our entertainment products?
Tiger King represents our own redneck China. The excesses of both the protagonist and his animal rights rivals have been underwritten by unscrupulous audiences who didn’t care to know that both their entertainment and their grandstanding are based in animal abuse. Joe Exotic is now in prison for, among other things, killing endangered animals, while his nemesis, PETA, euthanizes the animals in its shelters. That’s nothing compare to the People’s Republic, of course, where political activists are being routinely disappeared, and the entire Muslim population has been imprisoned. Lest anyone feel coy about discussing the abuses of China’s totalitarian rulers, this ragtag band of white trash oddballs and the questionable entertainment they provide alleviate any possible guilt about using the phrase Wuhan virus.
Pundits and politicians might endlessly repeat that every life is priceless and that we need to make sacrifices to save lives from Covid-19. Those are nice words and it feels right to say them, but ordinary people know that everything has a price, and they are asking themselves how much economic ruin we are going to endure to fight Corona. And this show puts a price on human life. Ten thousand? Five? Three? These were the numbers Joe Exotic threw around, when he was trying to find a murderer for hire. He was way off. It turns out that the going price for a hit man to cross state lines is $100,000.
A tiger is less expensive, costing about $2,000. Exotic zoo owners, we learn, breed cubs for petting parties and kill them once they outlive their usefulness. But here things get even less sentimental: the documentary speculates that Joe Exotic’s murder-for-hire charge was probably coupled with charges of wildlife violations—such as killing members of an endangered species—because the main charge was flimsy. The prosecutor may have brought those charges in hopes of swaying the jury with emotive stories of animal abuse.
Tiger King obliterates sentimentality in every way imaginable. We watch as a tattoo that alludes to a former lover is flimsily covered up; and an animal rights advocate may be a cold-blooded murderess. Characters who were probably quite good-looking in their youth, age and turn shapeless before our eyes. Like Dorian Gray’s, their beauty, always marred by tacky style, is distorted by decadence and sin. If reality series are both grotesque and sentimental, the Tiger King docudrama is grotesquely unsentimental.
I didn’t like the follow up interviews with some of the show’s characters, which were hastily assembled in the aftermath of the series’ success. Tiger King is a phenomenal success for precisely the same reasons that these follow ups are not going to be. It showed us the signs of our decadence, and elicited an emotional response, without parading teary-eyed individuals. I wish these follow up series hadn’t been produced at all because they are detracting from the impact of the original show.
Although I doubt that Tiger King will kill reality TV, I hope it will have a lasting impact on television programming and on society in general.