Last week, it seemed impossible that any cultural phenomenon could break through in the era of coronavirus. Enter "Tiger King."
In true Netflix fashion, the streaming service defied the odds and released a seven-episode documentary series recently that managed to get people talking about something other than the global pandemic. You may have noticed this over the past several days on social media, as everyone from A-list celebrities to that former co-worker you follow on Twitter has been posting thoughts and memes about this truly shocking show. It has been the most-watched program on Netflix for days.
If you need a primer, here's what to know about the series captivating the internet. Spoilers ahead.
The full title is "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem & Madness," which Netflix describes as "a jaw-dropping true tale of con artists, polygamy, rivalry and revenge." So, the kind of show that would be intriguing even if millions of people weren't looking for ways to pass the time at home.
How it started
Five years ago, co-director Eric Goode was investigating a reptile dealer in Florida and encountered a man who had a snow leopard in a cage in his van, as if it was no big deal. "What is a snow leopard doing in the back of this guy's hot van?" Goode asks in the documentary. "That sent me on this journey to really understand what is going on with people keeping big cats in this country."
The star of the show
Joe Maldonado-Passage, best known as Joe Exotic, the now-imprisoned controversial tiger breeder and former owner of a private zoo (Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park) in Oklahoma. In addition to his passion for big cats, Joe loves explosives, country songs and filming content for his YouTube channel. He was also married multiple times to multiple men at a time, who are also featured in the documentary. One of the most surprising facts in the whole series is that Joe was never able to land his own reality TV show, even though everyone says his dream was to be a celebrity.
You may also recognize him as the guy who made headlines during a run for president in 2016. ("Is America ready for the first redneck, gun-toting, mullet-sporting, tiger-tackling gay polygamist president?" asks one interviewer. "You know, I think they are," Joe replies.) A couple of years later, he made an unsuccessful bid for governor of Oklahoma.
Joe is currently serving a 22-year sentence in prison, because two months ago, he was found guilty on 19 charges. They include murder-for-hire (he says he was framed) as well as for violating the endangered species act when he killed five tigers.
The other star of the show
Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist and owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla. She and Joe are mortal enemies; her mission was to put him out of business because she was horrified by how he treated his tigers, especially letting tourists pose with them. (Even though Carole also makes money by housing big cats, she emphasizes that hers is a sanctuary for animals in need and no one is allowed to touch them.) Carole was "ruthless" in her efforts to bring Joe down, and in return, Joe harassed her for years, the documentary says — eventually, they became entangled in a bitter lawsuit that wiped out Joe's finances.
There's also an episode devoted to the mysterious disappearance of Carole's wealthy ex-husband, Don Lewis, who vanished decades ago. One rumor that made the news, which Joe enthusiastically embraces, is that she fed him to her tigers. (Carole calls this "the most ludicrous of all the lies.") This leads to truly the strangest scene, in which Joe casts a Carole lookalike to star in a music video for his song "Here Kitty Kitty," which features a graphic depiction of what he thinks happened to Don Lewis.
Their feud culminates in the last two episodes, as the documentary looks at what happened when a federal grand jury indicted Joe of trying to hire someone to kill Carole.
While the hatred between Joe and Carole is the crux of the series, the directors spend time with an increasingly hard-to-believe cast of supporting characters. They include Doc Antle, owner of the Myrtle Beach Safari, recently raided by police (Antle is not pleased with his portrayal in the series); Mario Tabraue, a former Florida drug kingpin and animal dealer who draws comparisons to "Scarface"; Jeff Lowe, Joe's ex-business partner who used to bring baby tiger cubs into Las Vegas hotels; and Kelci "Saff" Saffery, Joe's employee whose arm was bitten off by a tiger and returned to work a few days after her amputation.
What Carole thinks of "Tiger King"
She's not a fan. Carole posted a long blog post to refute the show's "lies" and said she was misled by the directors, who told her they wanted to expose abuse of big cats. "There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that the docuseries not only does not do any of that, but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers," she wrote.
What Joe thinks of "Tiger King"
Although he just filed a $94 million lawsuit against government agencies for the loss of his property, the directors say Joe is quite happy. "He is absolutely ecstatic about the series and the idea of being famous," Goode told the Los Angeles Times. "He's absolutely thrilled. I think he is trying to be an advocate for — no surprise — criminal justice reform. He is in a cage and of course he's gonna say that he now recognizes what he did to these animals."