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1 April 2020

Netflix’s Tiger King is absurd, voyeuristic television

It’s also the most popular show on Netflix right now.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

If, during these long hours of solitude, you find yourself longing for an edifying documentary or perhaps some soothing, glossy escapism, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is not for you. Debuting on Netflix on 20 March, Tiger King is ugly, absurd, voyeuristic television: an ethically dubious and proudly trashy docuseries. It’s also, at the time of writing, the streaming service’s most popular show in the UK and US. 

Set across a number of zoos and wildlife centres in Florida, rural Oklahoma and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, the show explores a community of eccentric wild animal obsessives, and a bitter feud between breeders and animal rights activists. 

The cast of characters is almost psychedelically colourful. There’s Joe Exotic, a leathery Eighties relic with a straw-coloured mullet who has two husbands, over 200 tigers, and a nightly television show he streams live to an audience of around 80. There’s Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a vegetarian yoga enthusiast who proudly rides his pet elephant around his park, where his multiple young wives live and work 16-hour days under the new names he assigned them on arrival. And there’s Carole Baskin, a softly-spoken woman with flowing blonde hair who wears a flower crown and an expression of permanent concern.

She seeks to close zoos like Exotic’s and Antle’s, but is the subject of dark and outrageous rumours. (If these sound like people straight out of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, Exotic did star in a Theroux doc in 2011.)

Tiger King sells itself on its increasingly bizarre twists. What begins as a show about pet tigers ends up involving drug barons, cults and the mysterious disappearance of a multi-millionaire. Binge watch with caution. 

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This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021