Why is the world of pop culture suddenly all about Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness?
Since its debut on Netflix earlier this month, the seven-part docuseries has become all the rage with the self-quarantine scene, igniting discussions all over social media — even celebrities have been joining in on the binge-watching action.
Houston writer and podcaster Oz Longworth, Jr. says it’s pure trainwreck TV. “It's backwater white people tearing each other to pieces and failing at life — The Sopranos on meth,” he says. “What's not to love?” Austin-based scribe Mason Lerner considers it comfort food in this time of terror. “It’s like eating cotton candy,” he says. “No nutritional value, but you just can’t stop until suddenly you realize you’ve eaten too much. But it’s too late because you’re already sick.”
Meet Joe Exotic
In case you’ve been streaming other things and you don’t know what the deal is, the show is about Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, the flamboyant owner of a Oklahoma private zoo that supposedly housed the largest collection of tigers in the country.
Yes, "housed." As the series progresses, viewers discover how this now-incarcerated king’s animal kingdom crumbled. Of course, there are oh-so-many sketchy players involved in this tale: the two men he had a polyamorous relationship with, an animal trainer who basically had a sex cult, a business partner with a history of domestic violence, a reality-show producer with a history of smoking crack, employees with missing limbs, etc.
But the most prominent player is Carole Baskin, an animal-rights activist whom good ol’ Joe considers his sworn enemy — and who also may or may not have killed her first husband. (It was recently announced a limited series on Baskin is in the works, with Kate McKinnon starring and executive producing.)
Lone Star State links
It turns out there are several Texas connections to the Joe Exotic story, thanks to this Texas Monthly story that was published last year. He grew up in several locations, with Pilot Point — which is north of Dallas — being one of them. He also married his first husband in Dallas and they, along with Joe’s late brother Garold, bought their first pet store together in Arlington.
As CultureMap Dallas reported, a Dallas attorney, Carney Anne Nasser, who specializes in animal law, helped start the fire that sent Joe Exotic to prison. Nasser found a window of opportunity to help end Joe Exotic's exploitation of big cats while working on the case of Tony the Tiger, an unfortunate creature who was confined to a cage at a Louisiana gas station for all 17 years of his life before he was euthanized in 2017. Countless animal advocates worked for years to get him moved to a sanctuary.
What about the animals?
There are many who aren’t fans of the show, particularly people who don’t like the animal abuse and cruelty that is captured on film. Katie Jarl, southwest regional director for the Humane Society of the United States, is one of those people.
“We have spent the last four legislative sessions trying to prohibit the private ownership of tigers and other dangerous wild animals in Texas,” she says. “Just like the tiger found in an abandoned Houston home last year — who is now living at our sanctuary in Murchison — so many of these wild animals of all species continue to suffer in substandard conditions because the ‘Joe Exotics’ have gone unchecked in our state for too long.”
Yes, this saga of caged animals and the power-mad, self-centered people who own them (and should be caged themselves) may be difficult to watch for some animal lovers. But like so many true-crime shows Netflix has previously dropped, it’s difficult to turn away from the figurative/literal carnage.
Nashville film critic Jason Shawhan sums it up perfectly: “It's '80s soap opera aesthetics and contemporary reality clichés mixed up with an obscene blend of contempt and envy. But I'm watching, because I love being part of discourse, and also because I'm interested in how society metabolizes this kind of gay man, because Joe Exotic demolishes a stereotype for each one that he fulfills, and he complicates any discussion that emerges about him.”