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Netflix's Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness breathes new life into the true-crime genre

  • "The true crime boom started to lose me somewhere around the Crab Crib, when the genre began seeming too gleeful about the really grim things it covered," says Richard Lawson. "(I will never have a favorite murder, I don’t think.) I popped back in for Netflix’s Making a Murderer and Don’t F*ck With Cats, so I’m certainly not above watching the stuff. But the meme-ability of it makes me a little queasy. While there are traces of that same giddy prurience in Tiger King, the series is, thankfully, less concerned with a specific crime and more with a further-reaching, darkly fascinating sociology, documenting a curious sect of people who feud and commune (kind of) over a love of exotic animals, specifically big cats. As filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin thoroughly illustrate, it’s really about much more than tigers and lions and the like. Like so many American stories, Tiger King is about ego and money and the empty grandstanding of rugged individualism, of libertarian fantasy perilously lived out on the fringes. It’s also about cults, and queer loneliness, and an unsolved disappearance. At its most profound—and engrossing—Tiger King is a portrait of a world that’s entirely alien, and yet also reflective, and diagnostic, of this country as a whole. It’s funny, and creepy, and frustrating, and, in the longview, pretty sad. Which feels just about exactly right at this particular juncture in our national experiment. The main character is a gay, gun-toting, big cat enthusiast/showman/conman/politician named Joseph Maldonado, better known as Joe Exotic. He’s been written about a lot, including in a lengthy New York Magazine article. But I’d urge you, if you’re not yet aware of his story, to save the reading for after you watch Tiger King. So much of the documentary’s strength lies in surprise, as Goode and Chaiklin lead the audience further and further into the surreal, exploring boggling tangents but always keeping Joe Exotic—haranguing, boasting, oddly charming—in view."


    • Tiger King is seven engrossing episodes of WTF: "The new docuseries has everything: exotic cats, murder, mullets, embezzlement, and a lot of welcome distraction," says Alissa Wilkinson. She adds: "For all the exploration of the world of big-cat lovers that Tiger King attempts, it never succeeds in giving us a sense of why things are the way they are. What draws people so strongly to these huge cats, and to the men who collect them? Why should it matter to the audience who wins the fight between conservationists and owners? What are the actual stakes of this strange saga? And all of that’s a shame, because Tiger King doesn’t quite manage to achieve any of its possible aims — to convince audiences to care about the fate of big cats, to say something about ego or labor or America, to make its audience think twice about what props up charismatic personalities. But it’s an undeniably entertaining look into an epic American yarn that seems far too strange to not be fiction. Even though Tiger King wastes some of its best material, it’s still a hell of a ride."
    • Tiger King is an enthralling yet humane look at when the outlandish becomes an obsession: "Tiger King has some imperfections; there could have definitely been some more objective discussion of animal mistreatment, abuse, and the staggering fact that there are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than in the wild worldwide to ground the series," says Ashlie D. Stevens. "But any shortcomings are eclipsed by its heart, and I mean this in the best, broadest sense. The outlandish world presented by Tiger King is funny, gross, frustrating, contemplative, and ultimately sympathetic. This is a story of animals, yes, but it's also a story of what makes us human."
    • Tiger King lives up to its title: "It's attention-grabbing, engaging, a little confusing, and a bit too long," says Alison Foreman. "It’s also the first show you should check out if you need something new to obsess over this weekend."
    • At first glance, Tiger King may look like another Fyre Fest-esque documentary: The docuseries is "a catastrophic series of events that are easy to laugh at thanks to the hot-mess egomaniac at the center of it all," says Lauren Zupkus. "But audiences should prepare themselves for some deeply distressing moments of darkness uncovered in Joe Exotic's story, particularly surrounding his dysfunctional relationships with his husbands."
    • Tiger King has so many "wait, what?!" twists that it barely knows what to do with it all
    • Tiger King excels by steering away from true-crime tropes like dramatic flourishes and overbearing stylistic tics

    TOPICS: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, Netflix, Joe Exotic, Documentaries