"The docuseries — part work of true crime, part graphic nature documentary, and part trashy reality show — has become must-see television for anyone who wants to remain pop-culturally conversant, or at least have something to talk about besides the coronavirus," says Jen Chaney. "I understand why. It’s an extreme, flawed example of the types of docuseries and documentaries that have generated the most attention over the past five years. Let’s call them WTF docs. As that title would suggest, WTF docs are documentary series or films with so many jaw-dropping twists that they make you blurt out, 'What the f- - -?' at least once, and usually multiple times. A lot of true-crime shows fit into this category. Certain revisitations of historical events or scandals — Wild Wild Country, Leaving Neverland — do, too. Even documentaries that tackle comparatively lighter subjects, like McMillions or last year’s two Fyre Festival movies, fit into this subgenre because they also are rife with unexpected, outlandish moments. 'You’ve gotta see this,' we tell our friends after watching one of these documentaries. 'It’s crazy.'" Chaney adds: "Where other docuseries and documentaries come upon their jaw-dropping plot twists in a manner that feels organic, the storytelling in Tiger King seems to be guided by them. (Co-director Eric) Goode, a businessman and conservationist, says he originally intended to focus the docuseries on the exploitation of exotic animals, but the final product suggests that the insane drama and quirky people in this world superseded that plan. The WTF-ery became Tiger King’s entire reason for being. Its WTF-ness provides its oxygen."
There’s something inherently troubling, and maybe even repugnant, about Tiger King: "Tiger King heads straight for the most salacious parts of the story and hovers there: the messy and sometimes abusive sexual relationships, drugs, guns, embezzlement, suicide, attempted murder, lost limbs, yelling matches, smuggling — it just keeps going," says, Alissa Wilkinson, adding: "The series’ salacious focus is, admittedly, exactly what makes it so watchable. But it’s also what makes it gross.
Tiger King confuses binge-watching justice with the real thing: "There’s an opportunistic virus out there, and it’s called Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," says Lorraine Ali, adding: "It’s hard to blame captive audiences for responding passionately to its themes of being caged, scared and losing touch with the world outside the compound," says Ali. She notes: "Tiger King’s loose structure allows for mixed messaging and mislaid sympathies. Like Joe Exotic, it’s sensational, absurd and begs to be watched. It’s infectious in all the worst ways. Who needs that right now?"
Co-director Eric Goode always knew Tiger King would be a breakout success: "He said, imagine Breaking Bad, but instead of dealing meth, they’re dealing exotic animals," says fellow co-director Rebecca Chaiklin, who worked for Goode in the mid 1990s as a door girl and manager at the Bowery Bar and Grill in New York City. "I originally set out to do a project that was a combination of Best in Show, Grizzly Man and Blackfish," says Goode, owner of several New York City establishments like the Bowery Hotel and the Waverly Inn and the founder of the Turtle Conservancy. "The core reason for doing this was, how do you create awareness about the suffering and exploitation of exotic animals but in a way where you can engage an audience? It was equally important for me to dig into the pathology of these characters as it was to expose the horrible practices of exploiting these animals. Initially, I was doing a story on all these different subcultures, whether they were reptile people or primate people or bird people or tropical fish people. Then I teamed up with Rebecca Chaiklin and we started to focus on the United States. Ultimately I homed in on Joe and Carole because of that war that was ensuing between the two of them."
Saff Saffery is transgender, but Tiger King calls him a "her" and refers to him by "Kelci," a name he doesn't use: "I don’t care if they’re calling me she; I don’t care if they’re calling me he," says Saff. "On a daily basis, I am called 17 different things. I never really took it to heart. I love being able to speak on this. Obviously it’s not something that I’ve even actively participated in ever, so, for context, my conversation with (podcast host Robert Moor) was that he asked me, ‘What do you prefer? Saff or Kelci?’ And of course I said Saff because that’s what I’ve been called for the past 20 years. I was in the Army prior to the park and they always use last names. So, Saff was my preferred name. And I’ve always gone by him since I could say that out loud. My family was always very supportive—it was never an issue."
PETA lawyer: "It has been disheartening to see people embracing the misogynistic aspects of Tiger King": Brittany Peet, a PETA Foundation lawyer who testified at Joe Exotic's trial, says: "Looking past the fact that Joe racked up more than 200 violations of the Animal Welfare Act while he was operating, he admitted shooting five tigers in the head just to make room for the tigers he was being paid to board. He indiscriminately sold baby tigers to people he knew were going to bash them in the head with a hammer, or he claimed would kill them in a gas chamber after they were no longer useful for photo ops. He literally terrorized and hunted Carole Baskin for years. Some people are coming away from the experience thinking Joe is some kind of hero, and Carole is the villain. That's been disheartening."
Tiger King offers a rarely seen version of Southern queerness: "Who could imagine that 20 years on, a mullet-wearing, gay, polyamorous exotic animal owner from rural Oklahoma would become TV’s biggest talked about gay star?" says André Wheeler, who adds: "Joe belongs to a rural, Republican-voting, working-class background, which makes for great TV for those who have a superficial understanding of the south. Joe appears to be keenly aware of this fact, playing into the shock value of his queer, southern life. Before Tiger King, he pitched multiple reality shows about his life to networks and starred in country music videos with his husbands. He is the perfect kind of reality star – straddling the line between an unrestrained 'big' personality and a caricature. Joe’s queerness and southern-ness intersect in distinct, complex ways. This includes his use of meth, a popular gay recreational drug. (In 2018, Oklahoma, site of Joe’s zoo, was listed as having one of the highest rates of meth use in the US.) He goes out of his way to associate with traditional ideas of masculinity through his love for guns, collection of large, aggressive animals, and pursuit of young, butch men who have previous histories of only dating women."