Netflix could not have dropped Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness at a better time. In this time of isolation and virtual viewing parties, this seven-part docuseries checks every box for the true-crime obsessed: eccentric characters, cults, polygamy, and more twists than you’ll be emotionally prepared to unpack. The tigers are just the bait.
Actually, “eccentric characters” is probably a massive understatement. Tiger King begins as a series about Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic: a tiger-owning, gun-slinging, country-singing, gay polygamist who ran a national campaign for president. Say that 10 times fast. Except, as directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin discover about five years into filming, this story is about so much more than an illicit zookeeper and his cast of equally bizarre enemies and friends. Suddenly Maldonado is arrested by the FBI for a tangled assassination plot, and viewers will probably come out of this with more knowledge about the various players and motives than the prosecutors.
Tiger King is not just about the murder-for-hire accusations, though. If you’re looking for a documentary about the world of unregulated exotic animal zoos that are apparently rampant in this country, you’ll get what you came for. On one side, there are the keepers who profit off breeding and petting zoos. On the other, there are animal rights activists and sanctuary owners dead set on ending those harmful practices…while profiting off similar methods. Somehow these zoo owners and “conservationists” are also suspected cult leaders, internet savants, insanely rich, and accused murders. Some are all of the above, with followers who will do anything for them (and the chance to care for exotic animals).
There’s a scene in which one of Maldonado’s employees gets attacked by a tiger and loses her arm. She returns to work seven days later with zero indication that she even cares about her lost appendage. Reader, believe me when I tell you that this is the least ludicrous moment in the series.
Still, the deeper you get into Tiger King, the less it focuses on the lions and tigers and bears of it all. The people involved here—a big cat “savior” who’s been accused of killing her husband, another polygamist with a zoo, and a group of Vegas con artists with an affinity for tiger cubs—are real people. And they seem legitimately dangerous.
Later in the series, as Goode begins to realize the weight of the story that’s unfolding, he calls his directing partner to fill her in. “They were sorta funny when we started,” Chaikin responds. “But it’s getting really dark.” Oh my.
Stream Tiger King on Netflix, here.