Tiger King 2 just popped on Netflix with five new episodes, and it’s a rushed, morally illiterate cash-in that isn’t worth your time.
In March of last year, Tiger King was all the rage during the first days of 485 Days to Stop the Spread. Locked down as a country, it was through the exploits of Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, Jeff Lowe, and others that we enjoyed a shared TV experience—something that was once the norm before cable TV atomized the national viewing experience.
From what I’ve read these last few days, most critics are looking back at the original Tiger King with regret. Although it holds an 85 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the thinking seems to be, You know, those were tough days, and Joe Exotic was the perfect medicine at the time, but let’s be honest, Tiger King was crap.
No, it wasn’t.
Tiger King was brilliant.
What filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin accomplished was extraordinary. First off, they took their cameras into the ugly but fascinating subculture of private zoo owners and then gave us a detailed tour of that world. Secondly, according to the filmmakers, they stumbled on more than just a cast of feuding eccentrics along the way. Finally, the cameras were there as it all fell apart under the weight of murder-for-hire, backbiting, double-dealing, bankruptcy, animal abuse, and a whole host of other stunning moments—including Joe Exotic’s young “husband” accidentally shooting himself.
Tiger King was an endlessly fascinating look, not just at the kind of people a free country likes ours produces, but how a subculture can become so bubbled that all sense of perspective vanishes. In the early episodes, Joe Exotic comes off as the freest man in the world—a gay gun nut with a wild mullet and a private zoo who stars in his own country music videos. He even garnered 19 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial run using the slogan “Make America Exotic Again.”
Then there’s Carole Baskin, who has a loving husband, her own nature preserve, and is worth millions.
Then there’s Jeff Lowe, who has his own zoo, a pretty young wife, a ludicrous biker persona that proves he’s gifted with a lack of self-awareness and is (supposedly) worth millions.
What more could these people possibly want from life?
And then it all falls apart by way of poisonous, tit-for-tat pettiness fueled by a diseased pride that demands these people ruin their own peace of mind and very lives—and for what? To impress whom exactly? Basically, we’re watching people who have it all lose it all in a way that epitomizes the saying The fight was so bitter because the stakes were so low.
And that’s precisely what made Tiger King so great. Human nature is the most compelling subject in the world, and Tiger King captured lightning in a bottle: a subculture imploding on itself, a cast of characters so caught up in their own narrow world they lost all perspective about what matters. What a ride.
Tiger King 2 stinks.
The most significant difference is all the difference. We went from capturing these people in their natural habitat to watching them perform tricks in a media circus.
Season one may have been a trick, but what made it so engrossing was the sense we were witnessing these characters, not only as who they really are but that wild moment when all of their flaws came crashing down.
Season two isn’t a documentary. Instead, it’s a breathtakingly stupid reality show starring despicable fame-whores who vamp for the cameras, pull stunt after stunt, and deliberately act as outrageously as possible to cash in on their share of fame’s shiny trinkets.
In just one season, Tiger King went from Capturing the Friedmans to Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s 200 minutes of junk, of awful people who’ve moved from the intriguing and unique Big Cat Bubble to the grotesque and exhausting Internet Fame Whore Bubble. They are all despicable, and season two is such a cheap cash-in, we’re not even offered a resolution to its primary storylines. Will Joe Exotic win a new trial? Will Jeff Lowe and another animal abuser, Tim Stark, end up in prison?
The fact that they are all animal-abusing sociopaths is a huge problem, primarily because the filmmakers still want us on their side. Two episodes revolve around Stark, a walking sack of shit who deserves to burn in hell. This monster left dozens of animals to die in a closed trailer with no water. Nevertheless, his story is still presented as Maverick vs. The Big Bad Government. Well, in that case, Go Government!
And that’s the other thing. One of the most brilliant aspects of season one was how you started off loving Joe Exotic in the same way all Americans should love anyone who is so aggressively himself. But as the season rolled on, the filmmakers expertly pulled the rug out from under our sympathies as the uglier sides of Joe’s complicated personality came to the fore, and not just with the murder plot, but appalling animal abuse.
But in season two, the filmmakers stomp on their own moral compass to indulge the people they see as “their base,” the small but noisy pro-Joe Exotic crowd. The only moment of moral sanity comes at the hand of a flag-waving Trump supporter, a woman who gives these freaks so much hell they run away.
Worse still, the filmmakers throw red meat to the freaks with a grotesque “exploration” of the unsolved disappearance of Baskin’s husband some 20 years back. Naturally, the finger is pointed directly at Carole, who just happens to be Joe’s bête noire.
Documentaries that examine, second guess, and challenge criminal convictions are doing the Lord’s work, especially when it’s on behalf of someone as vile as Joe Exotic. But documentaries that become kangaroo courts of public opinion are an obscenity. Baskin is suing Netflix, and you can see why.
I won’t lie. I sat through all five episodes and was never bored… Just disgusted.