DOCUSERIES "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness"
WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix
WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the realm of stranger-than-fiction stories, it would be hard to top that of Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, the self-styled tiger king. Exotic ran the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma for years before being charged with the attempted murder of Carole Baskin, his longtime nemesis and the CEO of the Big Cat Rescue animal sanctuary in Florida.
This Netflix documentary series, which has become a pop cultural sensation since it launched last month, follows Exotic and his park over the course of many years, but also spins off to reveal the deeply unsettling network of private zoos featuring big cats across the country and the shady figures that run many of them.
MY SAY Things just get weirder and weirder over the course of the seven episodes of "Tiger King," which crafts a labrynthine story of manic obsession and betrayal populated by characters that are so incredibly idiosyncratic it's hard to believe they're real.
Exotic is a polygamist — the series includes footage from his three-way wedding to both of his husbands — who loves his guns, moonlights as a country singer and also, for good measure, runs for president and governor of Oklahoma. Words fail to properly express the precise energy this man exudes; suffice it to say, he puts virtually every other person in the history of reality television to shame.
Then there's the zookeeper who has a harem of girlfriends and wives and wants to be referred to as a deity; and the one in Miami who was once a drug kingpin; and on and on. These people walk into stores with monkeys on their heads or in their shirts. They ride elephants. It's genuinely unsettling.
There's even an entire episode devoted to Carole Baskin herself, who exudes a veneer of relative calmness and normalcy, and suspicions that she might know more than she lets on about the unsolved 1997 disappearance of her former husband.
Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin have been gifted with an extraordinary subject for a documentary series, especially when criminal conspiracies come into play. The twisted machinations laid out here would make any Hollywood screenwriter proud. It's no wonder a miniseries starring Kate McKinnon is already in the works.
When "Tiger King" works best, it touches on the extent to which the obsession with these exotic animals becomes less about the creatures themselves and more about the degree to which they can feed the enormous insecurities and vast, insatiable egos of the people involved.
But it's a lot to take over the course of more than 5 hours. This is an unpleasant, scummy world and the series often seems to luxuriate in that quality. We get video clip after video clip of Joe Exotic violently and crazily threatening Carole Baskin, for example, a bid to showcase the extent of his unhinged obsession that ends up becoming more tiresome than anything else.
With so much of "Tiger King" focused on just how surreal things are, the sensationalism often veers into repetitiveness. Once the initial astonishment wears off, even the strangest people and experiences start to become mundane.
BOTTOM LINE Let's be honest: if you haven't seen "Tiger King" already, you're probably going to do so. It is a sensation. So here's what you're in for: a compelling series in fits and starts that doesn't amount to much more than a trip through an extremely strange world filled with extremely strange people.