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Tiger King in the Time of Quarantine

tiger king on netflix
How’s your quarantine going? Pic credit: Netflix

You’ve likely seen any number of think pieces pondering the viral nature of Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness here in the time of quarantine, but this is the only one you’ll find spotlighting the business of the expired meat truck.

Nothing is normal right now. Well, for me, this is mostly normal—it usually takes at least two walls of the room I’m currently occupying to burst into flame for me to get up off the couch—except for the occasional paper products-related panic attack and the fact that I dropped cookies off at my sister’s house yesterday and picked up a package for our mother, and we had to run the transaction like a drug cartel hostage exchange (“Just leave the package on the ground at the back door and walk away slowly. I’ll throw you the envelope of Kroger coupons. Keep the children out of range.”)

And we don’t know what to expect next. Our social anchors which mark time are gone, and if you’d asked me in January what my stock tips were for spring 2002, I would not have recommended all producers and distributors of sidewalk chalk.

Also, yesterday in the grocery store, I saw a woman with a bandana tied in a triangle over her face like she was on her way to rob a stagecoach on her way home. Other than that, we’re fine. We’re all fine.

How is Tiger King like coronavirus?

But if our interior lives aren’t normal, the quality of our entertainment might as well reflect that reality. The phenomenon of Tiger King has been attributed to the fact that, for once, the whole world is inside watching the same show at the same time. I think coronavirus is a factor, but not in that particular way.

Tiger King, starring noted irresponsible gun owner Joe Exotic, is a Russian nesting doll of WTF. It mirrors our current experience: When this shutdown started, we were smacked with one tsunami after another of unbelievable information, each more an undoing of our everyday lives than the last.

The NBA is postponing the season?… uh….And schools are closed until mid-April?… wait…They’re canceling March Madness?… Hold on…Disney World is closed?… oh…And now Samuel L. Jackson is cursing at us to keep us from leaving the house?… YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS. In about a week, we went from the high hopes of spring to the prospect of wiping with the pile of take-out napkins stuck in the driver side door.

So when our TV screens unfurled a cascade of grotesque and fantastic characters in a progression of parceled-out madness, it somehow seemed a universe parallel to our own, only with more ligers and fewer arson cases.

Who are these people?

If you play a drinking game of taking a shot every time you screamed “WHAT” and “WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE”  you would be dead by the five-minute mark of Episode 1, which is long before we even get to the condom-based gubernatorial campaign and footage of zoo employees eating expired meat off a Walmart truck.

The producers of Tiger King are masters of carefully building one reality, then lowering us ever further down one which subverts it. This Antle guy is a doctor!… Oh… of… “mystical science.” With anywhere between three and nine wives. Who runs a tiger and yoga-based cult. Every single person in this show is Florida Man, even if not in Florida, even if not a man. These are people about whom OJ Simpson has some judgmental thoughts.

The expanded universe of Tiger King is rich and complex indeed, containing the following lines of dialogue:

“Will the guns be all for you, sir, or would you like some explosives today?”

“I had bought a lemur with bogus paperwork.”

“I already knew he was bat**** crazy from our conversations at Walmart.”

This was all prelude to the man whose biggest beef with testifying in a murder-for-hire plot was that he had to buy a pair of pants for it. It’s a telling moment when one of the best showcases of personal judgment is someone saying, “I don’t need another felony.”

And Dr. Polygamy seems the most stable fellow of the gang, which consists of a homewrecking murder suspect, a retired drug lord, and a…whatever descriptive word string which may or may not exist in the English language to properly describe Joe Exotic.

What was left out?

Consider, for example, what this show left out: The fact that Joe Exotic and nanny creepster Jeff Lowe had Very Serious Business Plans to open a combination bisexual strip club and petting zoo named Tigers and Dreams.

There’s an entire Twitter thread by podcaster Robert Moor that’s a magnum opus of “but wait there’s more” which includes revelations that Joe Exotic’s case officer also served as his limo driver, one of Carole Baskin’s ex-boyfriends took out a restraining order against her, and producer Rick Kirkham’s house burned down not long after the G.W. Zoo studio did.

Alligator babies owned by Michael Jackson are involved. Again: what I’ve mentioned here is just the tip of a whole iceberg of dysfunction. (h/t Andy Dehnart of Reality Blurred.)

The oxygen of this show is baby tigers and modern gothic horror, and there’s no choice but to breathe deeply when every lead is united by early-life trauma. Joe Exotic was cruelly rejected by his father when he came out as gay and suddenly lost his brother; Carole Baskin was gang-raped; and who knows what Antle experienced to make him think that providing an employee with not-really-agreed-to breast enhancement surgery was in any way a good and normal thing.

Life with the expired meat truck

At least the human beings had some agency in the matter. “I’m sorry,” Joe Exotic yelled in a late episode at an irritable tiger he was cramming into a truck, offloaded for fast cash and bound for who knows where and who knows who.

“Well, let me sell some tigers,” was another shining moment in realizing that somehow events and dimensions folded upon themselves to lead one human being to say this to another. The saddest part is that the trigger point seems to have been good intentions for these poor yowling cubs.

By the end, when we meet a federal prosecutor, we’re so happy to see someone wearing a proper shirt that we don’t really care what she has to say as long as it doesn’t involve a later revelation that she was somehow involved in the lemur trafficking.

Shocking as it is to experience someone appropriately dressed for general life in Tiger King, it doesn’t take long, here in the Time of Coronavirus, to look away from the screen to our own hoards of toilet paper and pile of ruined plans and wonder just how far off life on the expired meat truck might be.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness is now streaming on Netflix.


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