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 new weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has all the ingredients of a legendary true-crime property. It's got a watchably eccentric central subject — in this case, "Joe Exotic," the gun-toting, meth-snorting, bemulleted proprietor of an Oklahoma big-cat sanctuary, whose legal name, thanks to multiple marriages (two concurrently, as part of a throuple), is "Joseph Schreibvogel Maldonado Passage." It's got ambiguity when it comes to various parties' guilt or innocence, not to mention what the "real" crime is at the heart of the docuseries. It's got insinuations of cult activity. And it has baby animals, possibly in peril. (Don't worry, aside from a sequence in which tranquilized tigers get readied for transport, you won't see anything too upsetting.)
But despite investigating a complex and compelling true-crime story for the ages, Tiger King doesn't quite come together. The director is Eric Goode, a nightclub impresario turned conservationist — he founded both the 80s NYC nightspot Area and a turtle conservancy — and his inexperience behind the camera has likely cost the narrative some clarity. Goode has some directing chops — he's directed several Nine Inch Nails music videos — and to his credit he's not vain about leaving in footage where interviewees are suggesting shot set-ups for him, and cameramen are then teasing him for following those suggestions. He's also straightforward about the fact that he set out to make a different film, one about reptile dealers, before he blundered into the theatrical feud between Joe Exotic and self-styled protector of big cats Carole Baskin that ended in Joe serving 22 years in prison for, among other charges, trying to have Carole killed.
So, "Joe Exotic allegedly put a hit out on a rival" is the lede — but Tiger King doesn't get to that part of its complicated story until six episodes into its seven-episode run, primarily because Goode has to set up all the players in Joe Exotic's story. Then he has to do background on Joe's colleagues and rivals in the world of big-cat exhibition and conservation. Then he has to give the viewer context on Carole Baskin, whose philandering rich husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances 20 years ago. That disappearance just happened to set Carole up to take over their collection of big cats and run it her way, not to mention striking fear in the hearts of her enemies via lingering rumors that she fed her missing spouse to a tiger.
Carole denies having anything to do with her husband's disappearance, of course, but there's a heap of circumstantial evidence that all points in her direction. That evidence, and the uncertainty about her involvement, gets its own distinct episode, but it could have been its own season. Likewise, Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, the ponytailed proprietor of Myrtle Beach Safari, could get his own season: former employees stop just short of calling him a cult leader; he's a "doctor" of mystical science — the comely women who work at the safari for a pittance constitute a harem of sorts — and his property got raided at the end of 2019. Many of Joe Exotic's employees could have had their own episodes, or an aggregate season, including mauling victim Saff, who was back at work a week after a lion took their arm off; and former park manager Rink, who seems to have some kind of job in the funny-car world now, although that's never fully explained.
I don't need a documentary to hold my hand, but there is so much covered in Tiger King that could use additional footage and further explanation. At one point, Satt says that in the "war" for control of Joe Exotic's park, nobody won, especially the animals. We don't see the big cats, the primates, or any other creatures starving or otherwise harmed outright, but an overview of zoo husbandry would have helped put things in perspective. What do local statutes say about keeping exotic animals on private property? What would the permits look like? We get some insight into the costs of keeping dozens of lions and tigers fed, but what about other costs — vet bills, cage repair, climate control? The "battle" over Joe's park also involves a sketchy guy named Jeff Lowe, and various side hustles with Lowe's girlfriends (including selfies with tiger cubs). And it feels like there is a lot we're not told about Jeff and his lieutenant, Allen, who was also the guy allegedly paid to murder Carole. Did Jeff use the baby animals as a recruitment tool for an escort service? Do he and Allen have prison-gang ties? There's the sense that Goode may have downplayed their more unsavory aspects in order to ensure their cooperation, but the audience could use a clear frame of reference for them and their past lives.
Add to that the fact that Tiger King's timeline is often vague, and the construction of the doc at times feels dishonest — like a series of arguments we see between Joe and Jeff, ostensibly filmed on a phone by a third party but unfolding very stagily; or the footage of Joe's campaign manager supposedly witnessing Joe's husband's accidental shooting death... Oh yeah, did I mention Joe Exotic tried to run for president? And then for governor of Oklahoma? Because that plays a part in yet another criminal allegation against him — that he misappropriated cat-park funds for his campaign. And Joe's late husband's family feels all kinds of ways about that relationship. Joe's unique romantic life could be a discrete season itself. And that's my point: this isn't just a great story; it's half a dozen great stories, and Goode does a pretty good job with them in Tiger King. He's clearly gifted at getting people to feel comfortable talking to him, and he gets all the major and minor players in the various Joe Exotic dramas on-camera. (The production's camera work with the animals is fantastic as well.) But it's a hissing Hydra of interconnecting agendas, many advanced by felonious drug users who may not be telling the truth. The sheer volume of material means that Goode needs a thoroughly organized framework, and to be transparent with his own construction. As it stands, it's confusing and frustrating not to know what's a re-enactment, or when a given sequence was shot.
And Tiger King left me with one big question it absolutely needed to answer: when a zoo like Joe Exotic's gets shut down, what happens to the cats? More than one interviewee alleges that another party has euthanized big-cat cubs when they age out of photo-op cuteness, and it's those practices that seem like the real heart of this true-crime tale, but we don't learn if there's any truth to the rumors, or where a tiger seized as evidence by Fish & Wildlife lives out the remainder of her days.
With all of that said, I think Eric Goode and his team have a bright future in the documentary genre. I can't stop thinking about Tiger King and all its crazy stories, which is a sign that it's doing something right. The series might have worked better as multiple seasons of three or four episodes, versus a single sprawling seven-parter. And who knows, Goode et al. might give us a Tiger Guru followup on Doc Antle's organizational woes.Tiger King is also fast, fascinating, and not too dark, and I recommend it, because it's good. I just wanted it to be great.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness drops on Netflix Friday, March 20.
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.