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film 'Tiger King': The Most-Watched Show in America Is a Moral Failure

Netflix’s documentary 'Tiger King' is the apotheosis of extreme storytelling: The more unfathomable and ethically dubious, the better.

'Tiger King',Netflix

At this particular moment, the most-watched show in America is a seven-part documentary series about a gay, polygamous zoo owner in Oklahoma who breeds tigers, commissions and stars in his own country-music videos, presides over what he describes as “my little cult” of drifters and much younger men, and ran for governor of Oklahoma in 2018 on a libertarian platform. He’s also currently serving a 22-year prison sentence for, among other charges, trying to arrange the assassination of his nemesis, an animal-sanctuary owner in Florida. And his business allies include another big-cat breeder—a yoga-loving guru in Myrtle Beach who runs what appears to be a tiger-themed sex sect.

There are no heroes in Tiger King. Not Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, whose stripy mullet you’ve surely seen on social media, accompanied by a teal sequined jacket so ostentatious that the adult tiger he’s posing with looks like an afterthought. Not Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who, one former employee alleges, coerces teenage girls working 100-hour weeks at his ranch to reach “his level of enlightenment” by sleeping with him. Not Carole Baskin, the owner of a Florida sanctuary for big cats, who Tiger King insinuates—in a strikingly unjournalistic way—might have killed her husband. And definitely not Eric Goode, the New York hotelier and animal-rights activist who co-directed the series, whose elevator pitch for it seems to have been “What if Christopher Guest, but real?” and whose disdain for the dentally challenged and leopard-print-festooned characters he captures is Tiger King’s most discernible emotion.

And yet, for the past two-plus weeks, Tiger King has consumed the pop-cultural imagination. It’s the stuff memes are made of, heavy on visual absurdity and light on meaning. The series is a carnival sideshow not unlike Joe Exotic’s central-Oklahoma park: You see the sign on the side of the road and you stop, not because you want to, necessarily, but because it’s there.