The Heart of Darkness Behind the Train Wreck We Can't Stop Watching

Netflix's newest obsession-worthy docu-series is loaded with twists, turns, laughs, gasps, and ethical dilemmas.

Tiger King has gripped a captive audience... pun intended. On the surface, it's obvious why. It's a hilariously dark and twisted journey into the depths of a very dirty competition among private animal parks. The characters are larger than life. The situations are beyond belief. 

It's like if you threw The Coen Brothers, Harmony Korine, and tons of meth into a blender. Then gave the concoction to a Tiger. 

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUOZUu0t2CA

The memes have been hilarious. The whole internet turned into a group text thread about the same show we all binged and couldn't quite believe. But underneath the 'fun' are some disturbing questions, and the answers to some of those lead to darker truths about who we are today. 

It also turns out, according to Vulture, that Netflix and Tiger King have another final bonus episode coming our way soon. 

'Tiger King' raises ethical questions 

While the docu-series is great entertainment, there is a complete lack of independent commentators who know about tigers, the ethical treatment of animals, and the health and welfare of the animals kept in exotic parks. It's kind of a glaring hole, isn't it? To say nothing of the criminal behavior depicted between human beings. 

The Guardian goes more in-depth, saying, "The show lacked someone to explain that 'good' zoos have standards for housing captive tigers (here are the Association of Zoos and Aquarium's guidelines, for instance); nobody to explain why tigers being forced to give birth to cubs in tiger mills (sometimes producing litters three times a year) to provide for the public's appetite for tiger cubs is deeply unnatural, disturbing and unethical. At one point, Tim Stark, the owner of a roadside zoo, Wildlife in Need, argues that breeding captive tigers in the U.S. is just what we need to do to get them off the endangered list. This point, though grossly misleading, goes largely unchallenged."

PETA is shown as a villain to Joe Exotic's way of life. Carole Baskin, his nemesis, is shown as being aligned with PETA.

In actuality, she is another individual profiting off the captive Tigers and free labor from human beings. 

Joe, Carole, and Doc Antle all use people in an abusive manner that rivals how they use animals. The living conditions... work conditions... drug abuse... it's a horror show. 

Joe seems to have some other not so surprising skeletons in his closet. Some outtakes of Joe Exotic's run for president were released onto YouTube, and it features him arguing that he should be allowed to use racial slurs because some rappers do.

Joe is portrayed as the hero of the story, and he's become the hero of the internet. While he has qualities that seem progressive, breaking down certain barriers, this clip suggests there is quite a lot more to Joe that was left out because... well... it painted him in a different light. 

For better or worse, audiences rely on Documentaries to provide facts. The subtle manipulation of point of view is standard, the truth is always obscured by the subjects, and the lack of true objectivity. The filmmaker is always present. 

We are living in the era of the train wreck you can't turn away from.

At the same time, when you don't let the audience in on the fact that the main character is a racist... that changes things. It's not a minor omission. 

While there has been no official statement from the filmmakers about this clip, it does feel very suspicious that they left it out. 

Editors note: spoiler alerts ahead.

The story also shows an off-camera suicide. It's a jarring moment. 

What have the filmmakers said?

In an interview with IndieWire, filmmakers  Rebecca Chaiklin and her and co-director Eric Goode said, "It has been really, really beyond consuming because it was unfolding, and we were on an intense deadline, and it was seven films, not one film. When something changes in Episode 7, you have to then begin moving things around, shuffling things backward. Once you start moving material into it, that can derail your whole arc. We were filming up until we locked picture and even beyond."

They went on to finish with, "Managing it was huge. We had a story that was unfolding every day, practically. If somebody was in the field, all the footage was coming in from shooting 18 hours a day. Then having to make decisions and get it into the edit, it was kind of wild," Chaiklin said.

That being said, we spend a ton of time on Joe Exotic's campaign. We see early cuts of this same video. So it's hard to believe they never saw the racist clip... or plenty others like it. 

In that same interview with IndieWire, filmmakers  Rebecca Chaiklin and her and co-director Eric Goode talked about how much they enjoyed their subjects, saying, "We were blessed in this project in having subjects that were obsessed with filming themselves. Narcissism was a common thread, and all of them constantly wanting to be on camera was every filmmaker's dream," Chaiklin said. "So there was this plethora of footage, and it was just the gift that kept on giving for us. Honestly, there was so much archival that we probably, to this day, have not watched every second of it because it was so overwhelming."

It seems they made a choice to not show every side of Joe Exotic, which is interesting since they certainly showed every side of Carole Baskin. 

All you crazy cats and kittens

Carol Baskin is Joe Exotic's main nemesis in the docu-series. Carol has a dark secret, according to the documentary. 

Her husband disappeared, and Joe, among others, thinks she killed him to get the insurance money. 

Carole BASKIN 2

The doc even got the cold case reopened, placing Carol under investigation again. 

But Carol posted a long video refuting what was seen in the documentary and an even longer statement where she addresses the claims one by one. 

While Carol may just be trying to save face, you do have to wonder whether or not they should have or even did allow her to address these accusations inside of the series. 

Carol is another crazed narcissist who supports unpaid intern work and is clearly a hypocrite.  But the doc really only shows one side of the argument here. 

Which is part of what's led to the hilarious and ceaseless "Carole Baskin killed her husband" memes. 

Carole Baskin

This choice to paint Joe as more of a victim and hero, with Carole has more of a villain is clearly made. The doc doesn't go to great lengths to make it seem too complex. It certainly could have. But in doing that, it might also find much less success.  

Joe Exotic is the hero we deserve... 

We're not going to get political, but it doesn't take a whole lot to see the obvious parallel between Joe Exotic and the man currently occupying the White House... 

Joe Exotic and Trump

A certain amount of childish narcissism that is charismatic to some, despicable to others, is extremely watchable. We are living in the era of the train wreck you can't turn away from. Both of these men care mostly about where the camera is, and playing to it. They hold a certain appeal, even in their most despicable moments. People laugh at or with them. People love to hate them. Either way, audiences can't get enough. 

It is almost as if Tiger King is the funhouse mirror America really didn't need to look into right now... but did anyway. And now we can't stop laughing. 

But so much of this story touches on so much of what's gone wrong. Broken systems guided by egocentric leaders with strange priorities and a lack of experience beyond reality TV. 

It's what WORKS about Tiger King, though. The documentary doesn't feel like it's the pursuit of truth, per se. Or exposing anything, or unearthing anything, or presenting sides to anything. It's much closer to reality TV than it is to Documentary filmmaking. 

The documentary says "holy SHIT you have got to see how fucking crazy this is."

But like in so many similar instances, we have to start to wonder about us. Tiger King, and its success, are a product of who we are right now. Meth addiction is the silent star of Tiger King. How much substance abuse dominates the decisions of the characters, their lives, and fates is clear but also left in the subtext and shadow. 

Which brings us back to the earlier point. A person commits suicide (perhaps accidentally, but it's unclear) on camera in Tiger King. It may be that truth uncovered by Tiger King isn't about the subjects, it's about us. And right now, we are broken.      

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Good read. (disclaimer, haven't seen the show, don't care about spoilers, so my subjective opinion is limited to words read and experience as a filmmaker)

"It's much closer to reality TV than it is to Documentary filmmaking." And that's why I have zero interest. Regardless of the subtext or incoherent message it tries to tell. Maybe call it "elevated reality TV" but I do hope Netflix doesn't focus on this route of content. I'd be more curious about a conversation diving into the creative process of it all and why exactly someone decided it would fun to capture, rather than a "Holy shit! Look how crazy this is!" type of thing. That's YouTube's brand.

April 9, 2020 at 3:12PM, Edited April 9, 3:12PM

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Kyle Culver
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