Cat people, by far, are the more interesting of the animal people. Dog people treat dog ownership as training wheels for their eventual progeny. Cat people, on the other hand, prefer a challenge: getting a cat to love you with the assurance that the cat will not claw your face off is one of life’s more pleasurable, eternal dances. Tiger King, Netflix’s latest limited series, explores this dance in seven hour-long episodes, all of which are the best thing I’ve seen on television in some time. As a genre, true crime feels depleted and rote, but it is invigorating to watch a true-crime docuseries in which everyone is uniquely terrible in their own special way.
To be absolutely clear, it is difficult to root for anyone’s success while watching Tiger King. The tigers, ligers, panthers, leopards, and assorted monkeys involved in the docuseries are the only creatures I want to be happy, and from watching the series, it is hard to tell. As a wise woman in the musical Rent once sang, “A tiger in its cage will never see the sun.” Though I am not quite sure if this directly applies to the tigers in question here, I imagine that living in captivity in the middle of Oklahoma is not the kind of life an enormous cat with three-inch-long teeth really wants. What is so searingly brilliant about Tiger King, though, is that the directors allow space for the individual character’s depraved spirits to unfold—a beautiful Bloomin’ Onion comprised of paunchy men with unusual hair choices hungry for fame and money in equal measure.
The Tiger King in question is Joe Exotic, an enigmatic egomaniac with a platinum blonde mullet and a passion for sequined tops. His central beef is with Carole Baskin, who oversees Big Cat Rescue in Florida. Exotic is the ringmaster of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Farm, a collection of tigers, panthers, leopards, lions, and assorted other animals in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma. I could gladly watch a separate documentary about Baskin, a wide-eyed woman with an unsettling air of calm. Exotic, on the other hand, is ripped straight from the airwaves of Howard Stern: a queer big cat lover with a predilection for young men and a sharp narcissistic streak that threatens to take over every other facet of his personality. He has a burgeoning country music career, he ran for president in 2016, he loves guns, and he is currently serving time in prison for orchestrating a pay for murder plot against Baskin. He is a bonkers man. He frightens me, but I also respect him.
Joe Exotic and Carole’s relationship is antagonistic; Exotic routinely runs his mouth on his internet talk show about the various graphic ways he’d kill Carole. Carole, to her credit, is remarkably unfazed by these death threats, in part because she is so assured that her cat rescue’s intentions are pure, though, in theory, a cat rescue and a cat zoo are both doing the same things. Doc Antle, a rival big cat impresario, is somehow, in the world of exotic animal training, viewed as more elite than Joe Exotic; there’s also Jeff Lowe, a smarmy businessman who eventually takes control of Wynnewood. There are also the various younger men whom Joe Exotic has married throughout the years, but the show focuses mostly on John Finlay, a tattooed man who, according to former zookeeper John Reinke, stayed with Exotic for so long because he supplied both money and drugs.
The best way to experience the Joe Exotic story is to see it in full. Watching his personality unfurl over time is a heady experience; the first, most natural impulse is to gawp at everything he says or does, but treating Exotic and the other characters that populate this wild circus as if they were freaks does them a bit of a disservice. It’s hard to muster sympathy for anyone other than the cats, who are living in captivity regardless if it is at Baskin’s “sanctuary” or Doc Antle’s glitzy Myrtle Beach enclave. But it is a fun part of the viewing experience to try, even though each person is somehow more terrible than the next. Every scene is so cluttered with detail that watching just one episode is an opportunity for further exploration. After learning halfway through the series that Joe Exotic ran for president, I paused the episode and spent a half-hour looking for campaign merch on eBay. The glimpses of the gift shop attached to the zoo in question drove me to Etsy, muttering to myself that I would likely die for a shirt from the gift shop and would pay any amount of money to have it in my possession. The gape-mouthed awe of discovering yet another twist in an already-knotty story is what television writers everywhere dream of creating, on a show that’s riveting simply because it’s surprising and true.