REVIEW: ‘Tiger King’ is the perfect antidote to quarantine-induced boredom

I’ll be the first to admit that documentaries aren’t the first thing I jump to when I have the chance to sit down and watch tv, but Netflix’s “The Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is such a mind-boggling whirlwind of a miniseries that it may have changed my opinion on the genre as a whole.

Let’s be honest — after being sent home and ordered to shelter in place, most of us have a lot more time on our hands than we know what to do with. After the initial impulses of “being productive” and “getting things done” fade away, it’s only a matter of time before you’re scrolling mindlessly through Netflix, waiting for the next show you can binge in a matter of days. 

Instead of starting “Grey’s Anatomy” or “The Walking Dead” over again while you’re social distancing, I urge you to take a look at “The Tiger King,” a riotous and unbelievable documentary that follows the life of Joe Exotic, a tiger trainer, former zoo owner and murder-for-hire convict. 

“Tiger King” dives headfirst into the world of tiger breeding and zoo ownership – a business that is as insane as it is cutthroat – and introduces us to a whole cast of characters who) go from lovable sideshow oddballs to accessories and persons of interest in a murder-for-hire case. 

At the center of it all is Joe Exotic, and if his name doesn’t tip you off immediately, Joe Exotic is a man whose entire personality and life story is so bizarre that he seems like a character from a Coen Brothers movie rather than an actual human being. He’s a 57-year old gay polyamorous former gubernatorial candidate with a bleach blonde mullet, a passion for breeding tigers, and, oh yeah – a 22-year sentence for attempting to hire a man to murder one of his enemies. 

Exotic, a gun-toting, free speech proponent residing in Oklahoma, engaged in endless online clashes with Carole Baskin, the owner of a tiger sanctuary in Florida that frequently criticized Joe’s zoo and the way in which he treated his animals. Although Joe’s initial anger seems to be only superficial, things begin to escalate and spiral out of control – he begins going online and making death threats, shooting blowup doll versions of her, and staging protests outside her sanctuary. 

It would seem like a fairly black and white picture – insane tiger breeder vs straight-laced animal rights activist, if not for the fact that Baskin herself is also wrapped up in her own head-spinning controversy. She’s suspected of murdering her husband for his money, and feeding him to her tigers. Although it sounds preposterous, the more the evidence is laid out, the more all of the off-the-wall allegations seem somehow plausible, and that’s not just the case for Baskin. 

Throughout the series there are a number of tertiary players in Joe’s life, including a rival zoo owner named Doc Antle, all of whom start out seeming like normal folks, and end up somehow morphing into documentary-worthy figures in their own right. 

Between Joe’s feud with Carole, the tiger-themed sex cult that Doc Antle seems to be running, the polyamorous gay marriage that ends in tragedy, and all of the tiger-breeding, zoe-stealing antics in between (and that’s not even mentioning the cocaine druglord), “Tiger King” somehow manages to fit what could surely be several novels worth of content into a tight, seven-episode miniseries. 

Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin do a superb job of keeping interest in the main story while also delving into the many, many branching stories that surround Joe and Carole’s feud, as well as balancing the tone between comedic and deadly serious. 

It’s also important to note just how well the directors strike the balance between illustrating Joe as insane and clearly unhinged, but also somehow empathetic. He’s a man who has suffered a great deal in his life, and although his actions certainly justify the jail time he’s currently serving, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit bad for a man who had everything he loved taken away from him.

While the series does take a somewhat more true crime-centric turn toward the back half of the show which detracts from the entertainment value of the first half, “Tiger King” has more than enough comedy, mystery, drama and insanity to keep almost anyone entertained for its entire run –  the perfect antidote to quarantine-induced boredom.