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ID's Shameless Tiger King Tie-In The Rick Kirkham Story is Surprisingly Good

Four reasons why this short, weird special about Joe Exotic's TV producer is worth a look.
  • Rick Kirkham and Joe Exotic in The Truth Behind Joe Exotic: The Rick Kirkham Story. (Investigation Discovery)
    Rick Kirkham and Joe Exotic in The Truth Behind Joe Exotic: The Rick Kirkham Story. (Investigation Discovery)

    Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.

    Tiger King fatigue is real. In the two months since Netflix's docuseries about big-animal showman, polygamist, and convicted murder-conspiracist Joe Exotic premiered, Tiger King first dominated the cultural conversation; saw a bunch of ancillary specials and podcasts rush in to take advantage of a quarantined public obsessed with the story; and quickly reached saturation point. By the time various scripted productions started announcing casting for Joe Exotic-based projects, the backlash to Tiger King's ubiquity was already well underway; you have to wonder who's still going to have an appetite for the story by the time Nicolas Cage's and Kate McKinnon's versions get made (if they ever do).

    But Investigation Discovery isn't generally in the habit of minding whether or not a particular case is overexposed, and the true-crime network is hoping someone's still interested enough to watch The Truth Behind Joe Exotic: The Rick Kirkham Story. Part of the "Nine At 9" event on ID that started last week and also includes specials on BTK, Jeffrey Epstein, and the death of Brittany Murphy, The Truth Behind Joe Exotic is positioned as the grand finale, so the channel clearly thinks there's something left to say about Tiger King. And believe it or not, there is. Here's why The Truth Behind Joe Exotic: The Rick Kirkham Story is in fact worth your time:

    Said "time" is only 42 minutes. Still interested in the story, but not willing to commit to another feature-length special? This one's over in the time it takes to do a workout. Watch it while you do crunches.

    The title is a bit misleading, because it's not entirely (or even mostly) about Joe Exotic. If you're not interested in Joe Exotic anymore, you might still get something out of The Truth, because it's really much more The Rick Kirkham Story. Kirkham, the bush-hat-wearing, cigarette-smoking Inside Edition alum who was "embedded" with Joe Exotic as the producer of his web series, has had a pretty interesting life, and is a born storyteller with a great ear for nutty narratives, both his own and other people's. (His own was the subject of TV Junkie, which won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance back in the aughts — but here again, the ID take on Kirkham's life and times is half the length, and comes free with your cable subscription.) Kirkham's decision to pull up stakes after a house fire and move from Dallas, TX to an Arctic Circle town in Norway, then marry a woman he'd never met before and build a tiny replica of an American bar in their basement, is probably a docuseries unto itself. In one scene, Kirkham drinks a Smirnoff Ice and records a video diary lamenting the way Tiger King has taken over his therapy sessions. There's really no one else quite like Kirkham on TV. (The less said about the super-cringe rap he does at the end, the better.)

    There's still enough new Tiger King-adjacent material to satisfy series fans. Well, fans who think Joe Exotic is a piece of crap, anyway — and I should warn you that some of the untold tales Kirkham shares are tough to hear, like the fate of the horse Joe Exotic agreed to adopt from an indigent owner, or the local college students who turned getting bitten in the nipples by a baby alligator into a frat-prank rite of passage. Kirkham is forthright about his own past abusing cocaine, so I'd hoped he'd comment on the role drug abuse seemed clearly to play in much of what went on at Joe Exotic's zoo; that he doesn't is a missed opportunity, but certain arson-investigation remarks may make up for that oversight.

    We can never have enough reminders that '90s men's fashion was brutal. Literally every single suit and necktie worn during the Clinton presidency looked like it cost $4. And the shoulder pads, oo-fah — they're like a fabric iteration of a crooked doorway in a Tim Burton movie, and Kirkham is shown in a hilarious parade of them.

    The Truth About Joe Exotic isn't likely to win any Emmys, but it's good. Not great, but good. It's contained, concise, and doesn't try to be anything it isn't; it's a unique short film, of sorts, about a unique media personage; love Tiger King or hate it (or just want not to talk about it for a while), it's got something for you. It's always a pleasant surprise to come across a competent, unpretentious true-crime property that doesn't do the expected things, or overreach — it's especially surprising in a special that was no doubt designed to take advantage of the Tiger King craze. Give it a try.

    The Truth About Joe Exotic premieres Tuesday June 2nd at 9:00 on Investigation Discovery.

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    Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.

    TOPICS: The Truth Behind Joe Exotic: The Rick Kirkham Story, Investigation Discovery, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, Untitled Nicolas Cage Joe Exotic Series, Joe Exotic, Rick Kirkham, True Crime