REVIEW: Netflix docuseries ‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness’ hooks viewers with exciting danger

(Photo courtesy of IMDb)

Joe Exotic is the gun-toting, gay, polyamorous, tiger-breeding owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Garvin County, Okla. His life and the thriving subculture of big cat owners are the subjects of Netflix’s newest docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” released March 20. The series begins with a call from an incarcerated Joe Exotic declaring his innocence, then jumps back to five years earlier when the drama begins to unfold. 

In just seven episodes, directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin tell the convoluted story of Exotic versus Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla. In the first few episodes, a decades-long feud is initially painted as an ideological standoff — a man emotionally connected to his animals with a mission to preserve their magnificence against a woman who believes those animals are abusively imprisoned and need to be rescued into her seemingly safe facility. As the series progresses, financial gain, legal battles and personal vendettas are revealed on both sides, leaving audiences to form their own opinions about the validity of each antagonist.

Exotic is a natural showman, with beginnings in magic performances that involved his tiger cubs. He is addicted to power. Whether this comes from breeding an army of tigers, promoting cub petting or seeking fame through reality shows, once the cameras start rolling, he milks the spotlight. His personality makes for addicting entertainment as even his daily routine is a spectacle. Audiences witness his life at the zoo, his numerous marriages and campaigns for president and governor, but also his grief, hatred and descent into madness, which ultimately leads him to hire someone to murder his rival Baskin.

The people and plotline are so absurd it is hard to believe the program is unscripted, but the glimpse into this bizarre world is what makes “Tiger King” irresistible. Exotic is an obvious entertainer and the primary subject of the series, but each of his eccentric employees have unique stories and an undying devotion to big cats. One employee even had her arm bitten off by a tiger and went back to work in the tiger’s cage only five days after it was amputated. Meanwhile, Baskin owns solely cat-printed belongings and is referred to as the “Mother Teresa” of big cats by a sanctuary-goer, even though she is revealed to have a dark, unsolved past as shady as anyone else in the series. 

The genius of this docuseries is also its danger — it pulls audiences to empathize with the antagonists. The story is laced with mysterious deaths and illegal activity from all sides, but Goode and Chaiklin take the time in the first few episodes to journey back to the childhood trauma and humble beginnings of both Exotic and Baskin; their interest in big cats came from a noble desire to save them. Both truly love their animals and believe what they are doing is best. There is hatred, malpractice and slander on both sides, but ultimately only one party wins. 

Yet the series ends in moral ambiguity, no one wins, but the animals ultimately lose. The life of Exotic is a spectacular trainwreck you cannot turn away from.