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As people around the world stay at home and maintain social distance to combat the spread of COVID-19, many have struggled to stay entertained given all the extra free time they now have at home. Binge-watching has thus surged, and over on Netflix, a show called Tiger King has become by far the most talked-about (and most-watched) new series of the social distancing era. Netflix’s description of the show doesn’t reveal much about the show’s plot, and online discourse and memes haven’t cleared the confusion, either. That’s by design – Tiger King has succeeded in large part because it’s so full of disorienting plot twists and shocking turns, especially for a real-life story. Here’s what Tiger King is and why everyone is talking about it.
Tiger King is a documentary – and that makes it even crazier
When many people think of dramatic tales crammed with plot twists, they think of scripted dramas. Some critics have said that Tiger King has so many plot twists it can’t be spoiled, but it’s not scripted – it’s a documentary with no fictional elements. Many viewers have thus felt immense disbelief while watching it, and this quality has encouraged many people to rush through the show’s seven 45-minute episodes.
So, what is Tiger King actually about?
Tiger King explores the battle between Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, and Carole Baskin, owner of the Big Cat Rescue non-profit animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida. Throughout the series, Exotic claims to love all the tigers and other big cats – not to mention the alligators and other exotic creatures – he keeps on his property as though they’re pets of his own. Baskin, on the other hand, sees exotic parks such as Exotic’s as animal abuse, and she rescues big cats from these situations and takes care of them on a large property of her own.
In the eyes of some viewers and critics, the series has unfairly positioned Baskin as an antagonist whose sole life purpose is to thwart Exotic’s operation. It’s far more complicated than that.
That plot sounds relatively uninteresting. What’s the catch?
Tiger King has grabbed Americans’ attention because the vast majority of its characters are so surreal they feel fictionalized. Exotic is a mullet-toting, gun-loving, gay polygamist living in the conservative South, and this combination of traits – not to mention his many idiosyncrasies – is unusual enough to have pulled in countless viewers. Beyond everything unusual about Exotic, though, is one of the show’s most intriguing plotlines: Currently, Exotic is in jail for hiring a hitman to attempt to murder Baskin (who is very much still alive). Additionally, throughout the course of the show, Exotic launches his own online TV channel, much of which is concerned with ridding the earth of Baskin and Big Cat Rescue.
Although Exotic isn’t quite portrayed as a saint or sympathizable character in Tiger King, one of the show’s most unusual elements is that Baskin isn’t, either. Baskin’s self-perceived role as an animal rights advocate is brought into question, as is the unproven rumor that she murdered one of her previous husbands and fed him to her tigers.
Baskin and Exotic are far from the only characters profiled in Tiger King. Other animal park owners and businesspeople are investigated, too, with one defining similarity among them: Almost everybody in Tiger King appears to be an awful human being, with behaviors including emotional abuse, scamming, and, of course, animal abuse all lying just slightly out of sight. Tiger King, at heart, is about scandal – and Americans, of course, love few things more.
If you haven’t yet watched Tiger King, now is the time. Jeff Lowe, one of the alleged scammers profiled in Tiger King, has said that Netflix will release one more episode of the series this week. Until then, all seven Tiger King episodes are currently available for all Netflix users to stream.