Carole Fuckin Baskin: A Review Of Netflix’s Hit Series Tiger King

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Words | Katelyn Free

It’s hard to really pinpoint why Tiger King is the singular best thing I’ve ever watched in my life. Maybe it’s the myriad of polygamous relationships? Maybe it’s Joe Exotic’s exceptionally outlandish aesthetic? Or maybe it’s the fact that this show featured a man getting his arm ripped off by a tiger and that was by far the least controversial part about it? In any event, Tiger King has quickly become an isolation phenomenon, and for good reason: it’s weirdly brilliant and highly problematic.

If for some unholy reason you haven’t seen it yet, the series comprises of seven short episodes and follows the exploits of Joe Exotic. Currently in gaol, Exotic used to be the owner of a seemingly successful private zoo in Oklahoma, which was home to over 200 tigers and other big cats. He also ran for president of the United States and governor of Oklahoma, which is nothing if not an excellent commentary on the American political system. The central plot is the conspiracy that ended up landing Exotic in gaol… that he tried to hire someone to kill Carole Baskin, the owner of a rescue park for big cats who was dedicated to shutting down his zoo. 

Now this isn’t exactly what one would call a well-made documentary series. There doesn’t appear to be much of a coherent plot. Each episode jumps from subplot to subplot and raises enough questions and conspiracies to land you in therapy. It was disguised as a documentary about big cat preservation but really doesn’t focus on the animals at all, nor does it make any real important points about their treatment. The animals feel like more of a subplot to the real drama: the batshit crazy people who look after them. The documentary focuses more on the weird-beyond-comprehension lives of these big cat owners and their dodgy deals and shady business. There’re a few lines on a black screen at the end showing some statistics about big cat ownership in the United States, seemingly sending a message about the practice and its issues. However, it would be misleading to say that is the main focus of the series. I’ve thought about this a lot and the reason I think Tiger King is so compelling is that it is essentially extreme reality television, dressed up as a slickly produced docuseries. 

The series kind of runs like a Greek tragedy. We’re welcomed into the fantastical world of Exotic and his larger than life persona, that has seemingly crafted a successful empire of big cat glory. Then slowly, then almost all at once, it crumbles. With the final demise of Exotic leaving him destitute and in federal prison. But somehow with a much younger and semi good-looking husband. Go figure. 

Despite the show’s flaws in storytelling, as you’re watching it, it’s almost impossible to look away or even feign disinterest. The sheer number of jaw-dropping and ‘what the literal fuck’ moments is beyond comprehension. And while this is the series’ greatest strength, the sheer salaciousness of its subjects and their crazy lives, it’s also kind of the most worrying part about the series. Tiger King feels like an exposé that is somehow devoid of truth or meaning, despite the horrific and dramatic events taking place. The series seems like it’s squeezing its subjects dry of all the shameful and unbelievable parts of their lives, without seeking to understand them or the truth behind their various perspectives. In that respect, the series feels unresolved at the end, there’s been no clear revelations and no real understanding of the point of these people nor their lives. It’s voyeurism at its finest and is maybe just what we needed during this crazy global event but shouldn’t be mistaken for being a trustworthy nor particularly insightful narrative. 

A particularly disturbing part of the series was Exotic’s Carole Baskin rants. Now don’t get me wrong, she definitely killed her husband. Like the woman is all kinds of crazy and her eyes scream murder. But the endless shots of his video tirades against her, wishing for her death, alongside footage of him shooting and blowing up lookalike dolls of her, made my stomach turn. To render a person, regardless of the conspiracy theories against them, down to a running monologue of ‘that bitch,’ left Baskin has somehow the least humanised character in the whole series. Exotic’s rants were never condemned nor really questioned in the series, and while Baskin is guilty of her own damaging rhetoric against Exotic, it’s hard to reconcile the violent and hateful imagery we see with the way Exotic is continually vilified throughout the documentary. The harsh painting of Baskin as the show’s main villain lacked nuance and was almost unreasonable. Yes, she’s running a dodgy zoo of her own, yes, she probably fed her ex-husband to tigers, yes, she is a tad unhinged. But that doesn’t excuse Exotic’s death threats and continual verbal abuse and harassment of her. Exotic may be interesting to watch and may somehow elicit some form of sympathy within us, but he is not the nice, neat victim to Baskin’s villain. The reality is a lot more complex than that, which is something the documentary fails to realise. 

Tiger King left a weird taste in my mouth. It was entertaining beyond belief and had me screaming in disbelief at the TV at certain points but was seemingly devoid of any real humanity. I know a lot more about Joe Exotic than I did at the start of the documentary, but I don’t know him any better. I don’t know what drives or motivates him or why he is the way he is. We get small snippets about his past but no real understanding of him as a person. So, while we’re positioned to feel sympathy for him, there is no real reason for us to do so. And that’s maybe why Tiger King feels so odd and disjointed, there’s nothing tying us to the characters on an emotional level. I mean that and Doc Antle’s weird sex cult (the photo of him and Britney Spears changed my life forever).

Anyway, Carole did it and I will hear nothing more about it.