To crib a popular meme about the show, it has everything: Conspiracy, intrigue, romance, mystery, big cats, fleeting political campaigns, bleached mullets, shirtless interviews, country songs and animal-print underwear brands — and that’s only the first few episodes.
But what is it about entertainment like this that so completely intoxicates us? What, in our deep bedazzled denim id, draws us to these spectacles, like travelers to a semi-legal roadside zoo?
“It’s introducing people to this subculture that has its own rituals and language and images,” he said. “Plus, it has these characters you couldn’t make up. Fiction could not do it justice. There’s mystery — several mysteries — that hover around, and lots of room for speculation. And it’s hitting us all at a moment when we’re kind of in search of something worth talking about that’s not personal or related to the way we’re living.”
It shows us a whole new world
It’s safe to say, before “Tiger King,” most people didn’t know who Joe Exotic was. They didn’t hum the melody to his song “I Saw a Tiger” or lie awake at night wondering if his nemesis Carole Baskin killed her husband and fed him to a tiger, like Maldonado-Passage inexplicably claims she did.
Most likely, they didn’t know this bizarre, shockingly active community of big cat enthusiasts even existed.
“What interests us is the psychology behind keeping these animals, and just as much as the issues surrounding the animals, we were interested in the people that did this.”
It gives us one-of-a-kind characters
“You know, I think they are,” he replied.
In fact, the characters present such a rich pageant of humanity that the larger themes of the documentary often take second place to their misadventures, catchphrases and questionable romantic lives.
It’s weird enough to enjoy from afar
There’s an important distinction to make between the kind of heroes that drive traditional narratives — relatable, worth rooting for — and the heroes that populate the world of “Tiger King.” Like the drama kings and queens of “Love Island” or the “Real Housewives” franchise, it’s their misbehavior, not their morality, that make them so eminently watchable.
His is the kind of behavior we expect from cartoon characters and cinematic anti-heroes, but rarely tolerate in actual human beings. Oversized, attention-hungry and ready for fame, Maldonado-Passage and his cohorts occupy an uncanny valley in between.
“He’s got all these people who (realize) he’s very odd and kind of sketchy in some ways, but also seem very devoted to him and care about him.”
Similarly, charismatic villains of reality TV shows, like Abby Lee Miller from “Dance Moms” or Danielle Staub from “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” are raptly followed but not necessarily liked by the viewing public.
And of course, we definitely aren’t rooting for individuals like Robert Durst in “The Jinx.”
But we’ll allow ourselves to get wrapped up in their stories for a few hours.
“These types of shows are the same — parades of people that you don’t want to be,” Safon says. “Even though we’re not admiring them or relating to them or aspiring to be them, we still can be fascinated by them. And the lack of relatability is almost a permission to enjoy it.”
It’s all people care to talk about right now
In 2014, the podcast “Serial” sparked a renewed hunger for true crime entertainment, and “Tiger King” keeps that spirit alive with not one, but two murder mysteries. The first, the murder-for-hire plot at the center of the narrative, for which Maldonado-Passage is currently in jail. The second is perhaps the most contentious topic among “Tiger King” devotees: The case of Carole Baskin’s missing husband, Jack Donald Lewis.
The outlandish (and unsubstantiated) prospect of someone putting their murdered husband through a meat grinder to feed to their pet tigers would be irresistible fodder for the internet peanut gallery no matter what. Add in a large dose of isolation, frustration and collective anxiety over a global pandemic, and the many mysteries of “Tiger King” become welcome obsessions.
“This really is a story about how Netflix could read the room,” Safon says. “People are actively looking to other people to tell them what to binge. They’re actively seeking reassurance from people, and it’s fun to recommend it. It’s fun to debate and speculate.”
“After all,” he adds, “If we’re going to argue about something it might as well be ‘Tiger King.'”