In the early days of the pandemic, Netflix rocketed Joe Exotic into superstardom with Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a docuseries about the Oklahoma zoo owner and his decade-long feud with animal activist Carole Baskin. Tiger King began as an examination of the eccentric personality, but it quickly veered into true crime territory as it recounted the mysterious disappearance of Baskin’s husband and Exotic’s arrest for a 2017 murder-for-hire plot against his nemesis.
Despite achieving a level of popularity that has yet to be matched, Tiger King was widely criticized for its disregard for ethical storytelling. Now, 18 months after Exotic crash-landed into the cultural consciousness, Netflix is rolling out How to Be a Cowboy, a new docuseries with an equally unconventional, but seemingly less problematic central figure, rodeo star Dale Brisby. If Tiger King faltered under the weight of its true crime emphasis, How to Be a Cowboy eschews that altogether, doubling down on the “how is this dude real?” aspect of Exotic and Brisby’s personas.
How to Be a Cowboy introduces viewers to “the one and only” Dale Brisby, a champion bull rider who runs the Radiator Ranch in West Texas. Brisby is well known on the rodeo circuit, but has more recently used social media to bring his brand to the masses. Brisby’s YouTube and Instagram pages are filled with short, funny videos (Instagram describes him as a comedian) that highlight the not-so-glamorous aspects of ranching — one video shows a coyote trying to kill calves — his best bull rides, and various antics with his motley crew of friends and interns. Apart from the political PSAs and the not-so-subtle country music videos, it’s the same kind of content that first drew eyes to Joe Exotic’s YouTube channel years ago.
Without the drama generated by the Exotic-Baskin feud, How to Be a Cowboy relies on Brisby’s chaotic energy, and he’s more than happy to oblige. The long-haired, Aviator-wearing Brisby looks almost exactly like Will Forte in MacGruber, a vibe that casts an immediate comedic shadow over the series. At first it’s hard to take Brisby seriously as he boasts about the size of his ranch (he insists it’s “the largest ranch in Texas,” at which point a producer tells him he’s wrong), corralls a maverick bull named Carl Wayne, and teaches his mom how to attach photos to an email over the phone. But by the end of the first episode it's clear that both Brisby’s outlandish persona and his cowboy knowledge are the real deal.
For viewers who aren't familiar with ranching, watching Brisby and his friends catch a bloodied Carl Wayne and guide him back to the trailer is equal parts impressive and terrifying, as the runaway bull pushes open the gate and nearly takes out Donnie, a ranch hand. In later episodes, the rancher teaches his new intern, Jorden, how to herd cattle, and crafts a bronc riding training program for Donnie, who dreams of showing off his skills at a local rodeo. How to Be a Cowboy may not have an animal print-loving villain, but the show is clear that the stakes in these situations are life or death: one wrong move could send these inexperienced cowboys flying off their horses, causing serious injuries.
Unlike Exotic, whose abusive tendencies were glossed over by Tiger King’s filmmakers, Dale appears to genuinely enjoy teaching the next generation of cowboys, and his employees seem to be at the ranch on their own volition, not due to a lack of other available options. These employees — a group that includes Brisby’s brother Leroy and their friend Cheech, in addition to Jorden and Donnie — are presented as valuable members of the Radiator Ranch team with their own unique skill sets. Cheech, who insists he wants to be “a cowboy Mark Cuban,” is an expert roper, and he happily helps Jorden learn the ropes (sorry) of cattle gathering. Leroy, for his part, functions as the slacker of the group, seemingly spends most of his days offering color commentary on his brother’s various shenanigans. “He works harder than he ought to,” says Leroy. “So it’s my obligation to work less.”
How to Be a Cowboy does have its corny moments — each episode, Brisby imparts a specific lesson, like “Cowboys are always prepared,” or “Cowboys are Always Learning” — but the show’s breezy, lighthearted approach makes it easy to ignore these flaws. With each episode running under 25 minutes, producers don't get bogged down by any one storyline over the series’ six-episode run. If the show is renewed for a second season, perhaps Brisby will remind his fellow reality TV stars that “Cowboys are always succinct.”
It may sound counterintuitive, but by using Brisby’s eccentric nature as the end goal, rather than a jumping-off point to something larger, Netflix has crafted a show that’s as educational as it is peculiar. Viewers will leave How to Be a Cowboy with more than just a window into Brisby’s idiosyncratic personality; they’ll also gain insight into bull and bronc riding and the day-to-day realities of running a working ranch. That's a feat that Tiger King, for all its bluster about animal abuse, never seemed interested in achieving.
How to Be a Cowboy premieres September 1 on Netflix.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.
TOPICS: How to be a Cowboy, Netflix, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, Dale Brisby, Joe Exotic