Eye of the tiger

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If you’ve been a constant on social media for the past few weeks — and who hasn’t been —  or turned on Netflix even once, you’ve likely lost seven hours of your life to “Tiger King.” (For those familiar, like Carol Baskin and leopard print, it’s all or nothing.)  Once you emerge from your viewing stupor, vacant-eyed and flat-affected as Baskin herself, one question remains: What is it about Joe Exotic and his exploited band of outcasts that both engrosses and joins us as a community to blurt reflexively, WTH?

For anyone who hasn’t seen “Tiger King” and is incredibly lost right now, it’s a seven-part documentary about an intense feud between shady private zoo owner, Joe Exotic, and wildlife sanctuary owner, Carole Baskin. This conflict eventually spirals into a murder-for-hire plot by Joe Exotic as well as touching on lingering suspicions about Baskin’s involvement in her millionaire husband’s disappearance in 1987. When it comes to murder, mayhem and tendriled mullets, there really is something for everyone here. 

As a world politically divided, we might not agree on the federal response to a global pandemic but while on lockdown, we can all agree that Joe Exotic’s country crooning just might answer Hank Williams, Jr.’s eternal question: “Why do you drank?” We may not be able to recall the last time spent with someone outside of family, but Baskin’s current husband’s wedding day leash is still burned in our brains. Some things you can’t unsee. 

“Tiger King” may seem like a source of entertainment in unsure times, but it also shines a light on darker impulses — human and animal abuse, as well as the twisted inclination to binge on moral decay. Shockingly, according to the series, there are more tigers owned privately today than left in the wild. And the offenses pile further. Joe Exotic abuses and brainwashes his workers, many of whom eat off the same truck as the tigers. Exotic spends most of the show peacocking around his self-styled tiger fiefdom with as little regard for his employees as the beasts he exploits, and, according to some, executes in order to make room for more. This bizarre equal-opportunity disregard is no more apparent than when a worker’s arm is bitten off during zoo business hours. Casually, Joe enters the gift shop and announces to park goers, “Okay, I’m going to be honest. A tiger just bit someone’s arm off,” and then proceeds to offer a raincheck — giving a whole new meaning to a five-fingered discount.

Joe exercises various forms of captivity as does the documentary itself. “Tiger King” enthralls with morbid curiosity and perhaps an uncomfortable dose of superiority. Watching people at their worst, we distance and exalt ourselves from the immoral and the unlucky. Not us, we are assured — mouths agape and pointing at the flickering screen, hostages encaged by the prompt, “Are you still watching?”