Back in March 2020, the pandemic forced millions of people to shelter in place until God knows when with no one to see and nothing to do. And as people hunkered down, a literal captive audience was introduced to Netflix’s Tiger King, a docuseries that asked the masses, “How much crazy can you handle?” Needless to say, the Netflix series quickly became a hit as house-bound audiences starved for entertainment turned to social media and made household names out of Joe and his comrades. And now a year later, Netflix hopes to recapture the rabid interest with Tiger King 2. But can the new season hold the attention of an audience that isn’t captive?
The first installment followed zoo owner Joe Exotic, a big cat enthusiast with big ambitions. His antics quickly raised the ire of animal rights groups and one Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue, who made it her life’s mission to close down Joe. But the scrimmage between Baskin and Exotic was just the beginning, as the narrative quickly switched from ferocious felines to polygamy, sex cults, dismemberment, murder accusations, a presidential run, and ultimately, murder for hire.
The first Tiger King was akin to falling down a rabbit hole built by a deranged hare. The deeper it went, the more bizarre the story got. But this time around, the ride isn’t as fun or as exhilarating. It’s less about excavating a story and more about exploiting it.
Joe Exotic is currently in prison, serving a 22-year sentence on two counts of hiring a hitman to kill Baskin and 19 counts of wildlife crimes. And because Joe is languishing behind bars, the focus of the docuseries has become muddled, not knowing where to place its gaze as it documents the aftermath.
From a prison phone, Joe pleads his case, attempting to cast himself as a victim of circumstance. But with Joe only allowed to make a cameo in the series that bears his moniker, the show goes elsewhere for drama, spending a considerable amount of time on Baskin’s husband Don Lewis, who went missing in 1997. After the first season focused on Baskin’s involvement, the series goes back and depicts Lewis as both a victim and a “deeply-flawed man” for no other reason than to create entertainment from the bereavement of friends and family members.
In addition to Baskin and Exotic, the series focuses on tier-two players such as Affliction t-shirt enthusiast Jeff Lowe and roadside zoo owner Tim Stark, whose hopes of fame and fortune are quickly dashed by their own insufferable personalities.
When it debuted, Tiger King was the right show at the right time, capturing the attention of an audience that needed a break from the horrors of reality. But now, there is nothing left to unravel except the lives of those peripherally involved. The “truth is stranger than fiction” angle that shocked the hell out of audiences in 2020 is somewhat MIA from the Tiger tale. What is left is a sad story that points a dozen fingers in a dozen directions. Even the final revelation is too little, too late. In the end, the only victims aren’t Joe or anyone from his camp, but the many, many animals that were neglected. And the only predators here are the people who attempt to cash in on the Tiger King phenomenon.