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BYB reviews: Tiger King

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Is it about the Detroit Tigers? No. Should you watch it? Yes.

THAILAND-ANIMAL-TOURISM Photo by MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images

We are one day away from what should have been Opening Day, and with more and more folks working from home, Netflix has taken the opportunity to release one of the most insane documentary series I have ever witnessed.

Below there will be some spoilers in the review, but please know that anything I say cannot remotely approach just how wild this series gets. We are reviewing it here because it has “Tiger” in the name and there is not much else to recap at the moment (there will be some fun baseball book reviews coming, though).

The general structure of the series involves the stories of three people in the United States who operate for-profit wild cat private zoos. Some call them sanctuaries, others roadside zoos, but the idea is these three people — Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and Carole Baskin — all have lives that revolve around big cats in some fashion. This may not seem like enough content to build a seven-part docuseries around, but what starts out as a look at the potential abuse and exploitation of tigers, becomes something much more twisted and, dare I say, utterly bonkers.

Here’s the trailer, and I cannot recommend more highly that you just set this review aside and go watch the docuseries before coming back so we can have a big old discussion in the comments. Potential spoilers follow the trailer.

This documentary is a relentless barrage of crazy. Literally every time you get into an episode and decide things couldn’t get more absurd or improbable, the episode ends and BAM something new and unexpected is thrown at you.

As I mentioned in the introduction, we are given three main characters to follow throughout the unfolding story. Doc Antle plays perhaps the smallest role, serving as more of a cog that connects other stories, but he could have easily had his own seven-hour documentary and I would have watched the whole thing.

His story involves, but is not limited to: being a metaphysical doctor; having a guru; grooming young women to become his wives (yes, plural); bathing his elephant in the river; never speaking in an indoor voice.

Again, this man is not the main story of this series.

Carole Baskin, who claims to be running a rescue sanctuary in Florida, and whose goal in the whole series is to shut down other big cat roadside zoos, is both the victim and the villain in this series depending on whose perspective you’re looking at.

Carole’s story involves: wearing a lot of animal print and inexplicable flower crowns; convincing hundreds of volunteers to work for her for free because they want different colored t-shirts; murder (?) (let’s discuss); a warm memory of holding her second husband at gunpoint on the night they met; lots of money.

And then. Then we come to Joe Exotic.

Fans of Last Week Tonight will probably feel like they recognize Exotic from the offset, because his unsuccessful campaign for president in 2016 made the show. Joe is a gay, mulleted, redneck cowboy, who walks around with a gun strapped to his hip, writes songs about tigers that feel unsettlingly romantic, has a polygamous (polyandrous? Is there are word for a man having multiple husbands?) marriage to two men who are maybe straight, and draws ex-cons with meth and alcohol problems to him like he’s a bleach-blond cowboy Messiah.

THIS DOESN’T EVEN SCRATCH THE SURFACE.

Joe is obsessed with Carole. Obsessed. He has his own internet streaming TV show where all he does is talk about Carole and how annoying she is. He writes songs about her, and hires actresses to pretend to be her in the videos.

When I tell you that one of his staff has their arm ripped off by a tiger and it doesn’t even make the top ten list of crazy things that happen in this series, you may not believe me yet, but you will.

This is the kind of show designed to generate buzz. Much like Making a Murderer, Netflix’s first deeply popular true crime foray, Tiger King excels in its own sensationalism. It likely could have been trimmed by an episode as some parts towards episodes five and six feel like a bit of a slog, but is otherwise relentlessly watchable.

I watched all seven episodes in a single afternoon. I’ve already seen a ton of buzz on social media, and expect with more people at home binge-watching TV, that others will be sucked into watching it as well.

A warning, though, the series does depict neglect and abuse towards animals. It can often be very difficult to watch, and even what isn’t shown is hard to stomach what is being talked about. What makes this documentary so compelling and impossible to look away from, though, is the people. Not only Joe, Doc, and Carole, but the side cast pulled into their orbits.

Joe’s group of lost boy workers is especially heartbreaking. John Reinke, Joe’s right-hand man (who has no legs and carries a gun with bullets that have his and Joe’s names on them); and Erik Cowie, the head keeper at Joe’s zoo (who at one point is so drunk in an interview he literally passes out), are especially memorable.

It is a sad, wild, unforgettable series, and will make you immediately feel the need to share your thoughts, so if you’ve seen it, please jump into the comments so we can discuss (did Carole do it? Seriously.)