Bad television for bad times: Why ‘Tiger King’ resonates in the age of pandemic

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as the Joe Exotic, the Tiger King

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Note: Spoilers ahead.

To flip an old cliché on its head, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” may not be the television series we need, but it’s proving to be the one we want.

There isn’t a single sympathetic major character in this seven-part Netflix extravaganza; every last one is involved in the abuse of animals, of humans or of both. The conscience of the series, if you can call her that, may have killed her second husband and fed him to the tigers. Or stuffed him down a septic tank. Or something.

Call it television for the pandemic. We’re home, surrounded by death and disease in the news and, perhaps, in our own lives. We’re scared of getting sick, scared of losing our jobs, scared because we’ve lost our jobs. Our cruel, incompetent president has been botching matters since early January and is yelling at us every evening about governors who have dissed him, journalists who have angered him and unproven elixirs he wants us to take because, as he likes to say, “What do you have to lose?”

Emerging from this vortex of insanity is the Tiger King, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, a.k.a. Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joseph Schreibvogel, the gay, wildly extroverted, garishly adorned, country music-singing, political office-seeking, assault weapon-toting proprietor of the G.W. Zoo in Oklahoma — a private reservation where adults and children can play with adorable tiger cubs, where underpaid, overworked employees are fed discarded cold cuts from Walmart, and where, as we learn, big cats that are no longer useful are shot and buried out back.

Maldonado-Passage is both paranoid and out of control — and he is obsessed with a woman named Carole Baskin, who, along with her worshipful third husband, runs a sanctuary for big cats in Florida and who crusades to put Maldonado-Passage and others like him out of business. Preening before the cameras, Baskin is as self-obsessed as her nemesis, though lacking his talent for self-destruction. As for the destruction of others — well, there is the matter of her second husband, whose 1997 disappearance has yet to be solved.

The filmmakers, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chailkin, present a veritable bestiary of other odd characters as well, including Maldonado-Passage’s three husbands (one of whom blows his brains out while on meth), an employee who returned to work just a week after a tiger bit her arm off and the owners of other big-cat exhibits — all of whom come off as far more sinister and calculating than the star of the show.

The end game comes into view during the last three episodes, when a career criminal who’d taken over the zoo, a would-be hitman and a government informant tell federal authorities that Maldonado-Passage had paid $3,000 to have Baskin killed. (One is reminded of Dr. Evil in “Austin Powers” threatening to destroy the world unless he is paid one … million … dollars!) Maldonado-Passage is convicted of attempted murder and animal abuse.

Did he do it? There’s no question that he often bragged on camera about wanting to kill Baskin, and he dramatized his wishes, as one does, by shooting mannequins and holding up a jar that appeared to contain her severed head. It seems likely that he was enticed into going further than he would have on his own at the instigation of his erstwhile business partner, who wanted him out of the way. But that certainly doesn’t mean he was framed, as he claims.

Needless to say, the appeal of “Tiger King” is entirely voyeuristic. My wife and I watched the first part on our son’s recommendation. She dropped out because she couldn’t stand the animal cruelty (not really shown but ever-present as a background theme) and then came back for the last part because she wanted to see Maldonado-Passage behind bars. I stuck with it against my better judgment because it was like the proverbial car crash — I couldn’t look away.

“Human suffering is dangled before the viewer like raw meat,” writes the critic Doreen St. Félix in The New Yorker, adding later on: “The documentary is a kaleidoscope of terrible taste.”

Why do we watch stuff like this? Human nature being what it is, we want people we can feel superior to, who get what’s coming to them, whose success is built on evil until, one day, it all comes crashing down. And I think we need even more of that sort of thing during a terrifying time like the one we’re living in.

We are now hearing that, because of “Tiger King,” the authorities are pursuing new leads in the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s second husband, and that, with Maldonado-Passage’s help, other big-cat exhibits around the country are being shut down. See? Some good is coming out of this freak show.

Perhaps. But I am reminded of a book that New York’s Daily News published upon its 50th anniversary some years ago that included the famous 1928 front-page photo of Ruth Snyder being killed in the electric chair for the murder of her husband. The book piously claimed that publication of the picture led to the abolition of the death penalty in New York.

Maybe it did. But it also sold a hell of a lot of papers.

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