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Tiger King, now on Netflix, is 7 scattered but engrossing episodes of WTF

The new docuseries has everything: exotic cats, murder, mullets, embezzlement, and a lot of welcome distraction.

A man with a flashy blue sequined shirt crouches low, embracing a tiger and looking at the camera.
Joe Exotic with one of his tigers in Tiger King.
Courtesy of Netflix

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.

Tiger King

The premise: Wow. Where to begin? Tiger King is a sprawling, seven-episode docuseries whose true crime story keeps branching off in weirder and weirder directions. It’s the tale of Joe Exotic, the self-proclaimed “Tiger King” who owned a zoo full of mostly huge cats but is now in prison for having hired someone to kill his animal-rights-activist archrival. But there’s a lot, lot more to the story.

What it’s about: Tiger King’s biggest flaw is that it’s not really about, well, anything. It’s a weird story to gawk at, full of larger-than-life characters who seem like they’ve wandered out of some kind of late-night sketch-comedy show.

But what characters they are! The central figure is the Tiger King himself, who primarily goes by the alias Joe Exotic. Joe ran the GW Zoo, full of tigers and other exotic animals, in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, about 66 miles outside Oklahoma City. He also ran for president in 2016 and governor of Oklahoma in 2018. He sports a bleached mullet and sometimes outlandish outfits, which are as much an attraction as the big cats themselves.

Conservationist and hotelier Eric Goode started filming Joe five years ago, before eventually teaming up with veteran documentarian Rebecca Chaiklin as co-director. Joe’s antagonist is Carole Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, and is trying to have the Tiger King’s empire shut down. Her main targets are Joe and Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the proprietor of Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina and one of Hollywood’s most sought-after animal trainers. Baskin especially takes issue with the fact that Joe and Doc breed big cats — many of which are endangered species — to live their entire lives in captivity and fund the zoo owners’ “pay to play” business model, in which visitors to their zoos can buy the opportunity to play and take pictures with the cubs.

All of this is incredibly interesting, and it gets much wilder from there, with compulsively watchable tangents galore and incredible access to the inner workings of Joe’s world. His current and former friends, partners, and colleagues tell engaging, fantastical stories that are backed up by lots and lots of footage, both shot by Goode and gleaned from news stories.

But it feels like Tiger King keeps getting distracted by shiny objects. Much is made of both zoo owners’ relationship configurations: Doc keeps a harem of women that many refer to as his “wives,” who work for very little money at his zoo, while Joe is in a throuple with two other men who are much younger than him. But the series merely glances at the implications of these setups — it’s not the relationships, but the power dynamics that really matter here. Similarly, an entire episode is devoted to a sordid murder case involving Carole Baskin that is then virtually abandoned for the rest of the series. Furthermore, footage from five years of shooting is woven together without distinction, so it eventually becomes difficult to figure out what, exactly, you’re witnessing and where it exists in the story.

These and other fascinating parts of the tale seem to function either as distractions along the path to the main event — Joe Exotic’s conviction — or shallowly tapped aspects of the story that could shed light on some of the questions it ultimately leaves on the table. 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.

Critical reception: Critics have largely praised Tiger King thus far. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson writes: “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.”

How to watch it: Tiger King is currently streaming on Netflix.