Commentary: ‘Tiger King’ confuses binge-watching ‘justice’ with the real thing. That’s a problem

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There’s an opportunistic virus out there, and it’s called “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

Netflix’s true crime-meets-trashy reality TV docuseries dropped late last month, just as Americans were asked to stay home to help flatten the curve.

Now those folks are facing another threat to their well-being: an unhealthy obsession with this reckless seven-part saga of crazy tales from the cruel, violent and often illegal subculture of exotic animal breeders and traffickers. “Tiger King” has become a pop culture fixation. Social media, when not dedicated to combing every aspect of COVID-19, is debating the merits of the series and the fate of its eccentric cast.

And it’s hard to blame captive audiences for responding passionately to its themes of being caged, scared and losing touch with the world outside the compound.

This car wreck of a show is a disturbing ride through the world of big cat breeder/wildlife collector Joe Exotic (aka Joseph Maldonado-Passage). He’s an attention-seeking sociopath whose fiefdom was an Oklahoma roadside zoo attraction, a gun-waving internet troll who openly stalked and threatened his enemies in graphic video screeds, a gay polygamist who is now serving 22 years for orchestrating an unsuccessful murder-for-hire plot … and for killing the tigers he supposedly loved.

His human target was Carole Baskin, a social media star who runs a big cat rescue and sanctuary in Tampa, Fla. She’s loved by animal rights advocates and hated by swaggering, macho showmen like Joe. Baskin’s wealthy older husband Don Lewis disappeared 23 years ago. Her detractors think she murdered him.

Baskin is loathed by the exotic animal breeders and zoo owners featured in “Tiger King,” many of whom are male, anti-government and express anger that a woman has come after their livelihoods and bested them. She has money, big cats and the law on her side. Meanwhile, her nemeses are an ex-con who served time for strangling his wife, the leader of a zoo/cult whose multiple “wives” refer to him as a god (or Bhagavan), a failed strip club manager and Joe Exotic. Among all the hateful screeds Exotic posted against Baskin, the most telling are videos of him sexually manipulating and firing his gun into a rubber, life-size sex doll he dubbed Carole Baskin.

More problematic is how the series itself paints her as a dragon lady of sorts, and potentially a greedy murderess. “Tiger King” relies largely on interviews with Lewis’ colleagues, ex-wife, handyman, mechanic and the nefarious collection of ex-cons/tiger breeders who hate Baskin. She’s the focus of the investigation into his disappearance here, despite the underworld he’s done business in for decades.

The docuseries squeezes a whodunit subplot out of Lewis’ vanishing because all salacious angles are explored here: cub-rearing yoga sex cults, Vegas orgies, Cuban drug lords, Costa Rican smuggling rings.

The drama is also filled with characters who’ve lost their limbs in tiger attacks and zip-lining accidents, their teeth to meth addiction, their lives to suicide. Gawk away.

Netflix has given Joe Exotic the fame he sought. Actor Jared Leto posted an Instagram picture of himself dressed up as Exotic, and Cardi B tweeted that she was initiating a GoFundMe to help him: “He shall be free!”

Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin have said they are surprised by the sympathy toward the title character of “Tiger King.” But they shouldn’t be.

Netflix set a template for true-crime detective docs with “Making a Murderer.” The 2015 docuseries questioned the conviction of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, for the rape and murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. It too became a pop culture phenomenon, and prompted movements for the men’s release.

Late last year, the platform’s “Don’t F**k With Cats” experimented further with the genre, pushing an amateur sleuthing narrative into alarming directions, including online snuff videos catching a killer in the act.

Since “Tiger King’s” release, authorities in Florida have reported receiving a flood of requests to investigate and charge Baskin with murder. Binge-watching justice is officially a thing.

“Tiger King’s” loose structure allows for mixed messaging and mislaid sympathies. Like Joe Exotic, it’s sensational, absurd and begs to be watched. It’s infectious in all the worst ways. Who needs that right now?


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