Joe Exotic, the self-proclaimed “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet” and star attraction of the hit Netflix docu-series Tiger King (★★★☆☆), seems to have been rehearsing all his life for this moment in the spotlight. Back in 2013, on the short-lived NatGeo reality show Animal Intervention, even among the kooks and criminals hounded by host Alison Eastwood for abusing and exploiting wild animals, Joe Exotic stood out for his bleached blonde ‘do and cultivated brand of big-talking showmanship. As if a mad scientist had tossed Chuck Norris, P.T. Barnum, and Rip Taylor in a blender — then tossed that blender into a bag of crystal meth — Joe Exotic (a.k.a. Joe Schreibvogel a.k.a. Joe Maldonado Passage) was an original creation destined for infamy.
Tiger King offers an entertaining if lurid chronicle of the “murder, mayhem, and madness” that got him there. Of course, the exotic animals — including tigers, lions, ligers, bears, chimpanzees, and wolves — that Joe caged, exhibited, bred, and sold at his Oklahoma zoo were his major meal ticket. But directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode devote precious little running time of the series’ seven episodes to anyone’s concern for the animals’ well-being.
Rather, Tiger King, as the show pointedly acknowledges in its finale episode, can’t help focusing on the human menagerie of cons, crooks, wild animal exploiters, and possible cult leaders and killers who got wrapped up in Joe’s years-long feud with his sworn nemesis, Tampa-based animal rights activist Carole Baskin.
Direction and editing firmly posit cantankerous Joe and cheerful, smiling Carole as antagonists who fueled each other, and, perhaps, deserved each other. Founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue sanctuary, Carole and her husband Howard mobilize massive PR and private investigative resources towards putting Joe’s operation out of business. Meanwhile, Joe makes sure the whole world knows that Carole conceals a not so cheerful past, marked by less animal-friendly practices and her own deadly mystery worth investigating.
Theirs becomes an ugly war, and Joe fights dirty. He makes a running joke of threatening her life, and firing his gun at a dummy named Carole as part of his act. At one point, he gleefully reads incriminating entries allegedly from Carole’s diary on his internet talk show — which, based on the footage, spent an inordinate amount of time broadcasting his hatred for her. Both sides stage protests and counter-protests of each other’s parks, fight over cats and cubs, logos and copyrights, trade lawsuits, and ultimately, somebody starts plotting murder. The pattern of escalation registers as a sad indictment of Joe Exotic’s character and crisis management skills.
But a sadder indictment for all of humanity might be that, as horribly as Joe comes off in this series, he doesn’t necessarily represent the bottom of the barrel among the scramble of rats and snakes comprising Tiger King‘s cast of characters. Joe’s friend and fellow big cat keeper “Doc” Antle, the owner of Myrtle Beach Safari, distinguishes himself with his own distinctive hairdo, boiling hatred of Carole, and harem of helper wives, all of whom started off as teenage female apprentices before Doc “mentored,” seduced, then renamed them. Then there’s Joe’s angel investor Jeff Lowe, a grifting phony at best, according to what comes to light here, and a murderous, backstabbing wife-abuser, if we’re to believe the worst.
We can laugh at Joe’s gift shop promos for Tiger King sex gel, at his failed 2016 Presidential campaign, or at any of the mind-boggling music videos for his alleged country songs, but it’s disheartening to peer so close-up at him and his cronies, the sort of people who meet at an Applebee’s to plot their enemy’s downfall. Not even relatively innocent bystanders like Joe’s two hard-partying husbands, John and Travis, emerge with clean hands. Poor John doesn’t emerge with half his real teeth, thanks to all the crystal meth.
The show carefully introduces its ever-expanding cast of associates, employees, and current and former husbands via interviews and well-sourced footage, as the filmmakers explode at least one head-snapping, bombshell reveal by the tail-end of each episode. The aforementioned Animal Intervention poured more true animal love into a single segment than Tiger King musters in seven episodes, but this all-American tragicomedy compels by keeping its eyes on the impending trainwreck of oh-so-human greed, ego, and evil. The show might just make a cult idol out of Joe Exotic yet — although he might not be in much position these days to enjoy it.
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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.
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