Oh no, it’s back.
You can’t fake hype. You can’t force masses of people to like your thing, regardless of how much money you spend on marketing. We have plenty of notorious pop culture flops to back that up. So much of success comes down to timing, and Netflix’s true-crime phenomenon Tiger King had just that. Last March, as the world descended into COVID-19 lockdown, with nothing else to do but stay at home and watch TV, we collectively clutched to this sordidly addictive tale of big cat owners, murder-for-hire, classism, and pseudo-camp chaos. According to Nielsen ratings, over 34.3 million viewers tuned into the series over its first ten days of release, making it one of Netflix’s most successful pieces of original programming. The memes were endless, the Halloween costumes everywhere, and soon Tiger King was inescapable.
As the first piece of lockdown era pop culture, there was a lot to talk about with Tiger King, from its questionable glorification of Joe Exotic, a man currently imprisoned for trying to have someone murdered, to the guffawing attitude towards its portrayal of lower-class Americans. it took a while for the conversation to move beyond the alluringly tawdry nature of its set-up. The concerns of real animal conservation groups went unheard amid the flutter of jokes and Netflix’s own parodying of the events. When Joel McHale hosted an aftershow special, various figures from the series talked candidly about their trauma while he focused on the punchline.
Indeed, the first episode of this new five-part season opens with a montage of the media hysteria that followed the premiere, from the impersonations and photoshops to some loser asking Donald Trump about a pardon for Joe Exotic. While Exotic remains behind bars, his former employees and nemeses are making bank on their newfound fame. They are a ‘cast of characters,’ as one reporter says, and the series itself was happy to exploit that. Can they continue doing so now that the stakes have wildly changed? They all have way more opportunities thanks to this show and nobody is missing a single chance to cash in. Dillon Passage, Exotic’s husband, is selling merch that includes ‘tiger taint’ (I’ll let you figure out what that is.) Jeff Lowe, the current owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, created a giant ‘TK’-shaped enclosure for the monkeys. Everyone is still framed as some sort of circus sideshow, an array of classism and reality TV leering where it’s clear we’re still supposed to laugh at it all. Why dig deeper when the joke is so easy, right?
Carole Baskin, the woman Exotic was convicted of trying to have killed, may have gotten her media moments but she also faced the worst amount of misogyny and abuse thanks to the series. We hear recordings of the harassment she received from Exotic supporters while we see his fanboys organize a campaign for a Presidential pardon (they even turn up in DC on January 6th.). There’s zero self-awareness from the show itself on this matter. After all, they were the ones who spent an entire episode fanning the flames of a seriously suspect conspiracy that Baskin had her husband killed. It was ridiculous and journalistically f**ked up for a supposed documentary to make a huge tangent from its already unwieldy focus to play Reddit detective on a matter that was both ludicrous and unrelated to the matter at hand. That episode existed solely for the makers of Tiger King to pretend that there was an even match of evil at play here, that the woman who Joe Exotic spent years threatening to kill and harassing and eventually hiring someone to murder her was somehow ‘just as bad.’
So, of course this new season dedicates EVEN more time to this nonsense. It only becomes clearer that there’s no leg to stand on with this murder theory. The details we get of her late husband, Don Lewis, just make him out to be an even bigger piece of sh*t, even as the series still casts the shadow of suspicion over Baskin. On top of flying money to Costa Rica to launder it, the series alleges that Lewis was a child sex offender. One man even says that “Don was attracted to Costa Rica because it was a paradise where little girls were sold.” He’s described as having a ‘favorite’ girl who was only 15 years old at the time.
Tiger King started out as an exploration into the kooky world of private big cat owners in America before the directors landed on a goldmine of weird. Ultimately, they ended up not caring about any of the animals who were neglected, abused, and outright murdered. Remember, Exotic shot several tigers. This supposed hero of the animal world is a shotgun-wielding piece of sh*t. This series doesn’t care about the animals. Really, it doesn’t care about the people much either, but the sore lack of focus on the mass exploitation of exotic animals in America is especially egregious given the show’s supposed intentions.
Then again, what are they? Season two makes it abundantly clear that there isn’t much to say here. The story’s been told and the directors have little interest in examining their own role in the creation of a deeply flawed myth. Really, they want to keep perpetuating it, desperately hoping for more material to fuel a third season. One of the few true revelations of this season is a sworn affidavit given by Allen Glover, the hitman who was supposedly hired by Joe Exotic to kill rival tiger preserve owner Carole Baskin, that claims he was actually part of a scheme with Jeff Lowe to get Exotic jailed. He even alleges that he had planned to kill Exotic in the same way that they would have killed Baskin. If this is indeed true then it would be the strongest evidence that the #FreeJoeExotic supporters have to get him out of jail. Frankly, I think that’s what the Tiger King directors want, and that is a deeply disheartening but unsurprising conclusion to this waste of five hours of my life.
If you do choose to watch this new season of Tiger King then rest assured that it won’t leave you feeling as tainted by sleaze as the prior one, but that smarmy slime is all still here. It’s just diluted because the directors have nothing new to say or add to an already overblown and tedious case. This could have been a welcome moment of reflection but that’s more complicated than the filmmakers wanted to be. Their money machine won’t slow down anytime soon. The memeification of true crime will continue to find new depths to pummel.
Season two of Tiger King is streaming now on Netflix.