Why “Tiger King” Became the Perfect Cultural Phenomenon

“Tiger King’s” widespread popularity during the mass quarantine is a perfect example of the kind of content we gravitate towards in crisis.

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Alexandra Chan

The tiger rules as a fierce predator in the wild. The Netflix series Tiger King has gone on to become a nationwide sensation. (Staff Illustration by Alexandra Chan)

By Isabella Armus, Staff Writer

Upon logging into Twitter a couple of weeks back and discovering the mass mania surrounding bizarre individuals who horde and collect endangered mammals in the U.S, the only appropriate response I could think of at the time was: “huh?” Netflix’s new docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” has rapidly gone viral, with numerous online users discussing the episodes, making memes and debating over whether one key subject is secretly a murderer. I realized I had to see this sensation for myself. What I found is that the perplexing premise serves as only the very tip of the iceberg for experiencing all seven episodes of “Tiger King.”

Filmed over the course of five years, the show mainly centers on the investigation and subsequent arrest of the Oklahoma native and bleached mullet personified, Joe Exotic, and his roadside zoo. Exotic initially guides us through the logistics of his dysfunctional lifestyle, but as the cameras stay rolling, his tiger collecting spirals into dangerous territory as his petty, interpersonal ties to other zoo owners across the country begin to escalate. As the dirty details of this southern nether realm unfurl, the exploitation of wild animals for power and profit becomes background noise to the seemingly endless battle between Joe and Florida-based animal sanctuary owner Carole Baskin. The vendetta the two have for each other is unabashed. Even though they try their best to spit incoherent accusations across state borders ranging from copyright infringement to murder, both Baskin and Exotic’s ethical practices don’t signal many differences. Their chaotic rivalry is a near perfect exhibition in eccentric obliviousness, making for great television.

However unsettling certain aspects of this series truly are, “Tiger King” still has the desired domino effect on whoever watches. Once you watch one episode, you’re hooked. Both viewer’s empathy and understanding fly completely out the window. The viewing experience is just about witnessing and reacting to the endless heaps of chaos that ensues on screen.

The vastly addictive nature of this show has sent shockwaves across the nation over the past few weeks, as millions have binged the miniseries. Though Netflix tends to be quite elusive with their streaming numbers, “Tiger King” still consistently reigns in the number one slot on their site. Copious amounts of memes, impressions and merchandise have also been created in honor of ‘king’ Exotic, including the wildly popular “Make America Exotic Again” and “F-ck Carole Baskin” t-shirts.

But as “Tiger King” spreads like wildfire, it’s hard not to ask why this story above all else was the one that became an overnight sensation. Its essence rings true to the other oddball, freak show programming that has found a niche spot in television over the years, such as series like “My Strange Addiction” or “Sister Wives.” But even those shows arguably still haven’t reached the unexpected ubiquity that “Tiger King” has achieved. Its wild success is an event that can only, undeniably, be a product of its time.

In a time of unimaginable, unpredictable tragedy due to the coronavirus pandemic, audiences are, rightfully, particularly jaded right now. The constant influx of news stories bombarding the masses has desensitized dire terms such as “quarantine” into everyday fare. A distraction is absolutely warranted to detox the mounting anxiety, and walking caricature Joe Exotic is the wealthiest source imaginable. 

Everything about Exotic is a purposeful, haphazard attempt to grab your attention. His hairstyle, colorful wardrobe, off-color comments and accent are basically a Halloween costume waiting to happen. The show itself is incredibly aware of this, so, throughout the documentary, the filmmakers wring out every single idiosyncratic facet that Exotic and his clan have to offer. Thus, scenes featuring (at times unnecessary) polygamy, sex cults, political campaigns, low-budget country music videos, meth use, murder for hire and amputated limbs play a mile a minute. The self-awareness behind the creation of this show reveals not only a desire to create a scathing, in depth exposé, but also, to stun viewers with an enthralling piece of entertainment. It is an unrestrained, immersive distraction from the horrors of the real world right outside our doors. 

The show’s ability to shock, confuse and rile up an audience not only comes as a welcome distraction, but also, somewhat of a relief. When viewers eagerly watch the show, they can compare themselves to outlandish folks like Exotic and enjoy a rare degree of normalcy right now. It feels nice to watch crisis-in-action from an outside perspective and feel comparatively secure, especially at a time when everyone is currently living in an inescapable real-world crisis.

The release of “Tiger King” during the ongoing crisis somehow, despite all odds, managed to bring people together in a time defined by distance and its success speaks to the necessity of fantastical, outlandish entertainment in times when reality is all too imposing. There’s no escaping the truth that life is frightening right now, but it’s important to seek sources of relief, however temporary. The anxious masses need a little peace. What better way than through the television screen?

Email Isabella Armus at [email protected]