There’s a pretty clearly defined sub-genre of documentary that has emerged on Netflix in recent years; the streaming giant has punctuated every few months with a new meme-worthy shocker that has become instant watercooler talk across the globe.
Making A Murder set the tone, Fyre and Don’t Fuck With Cats are more recent examples, and the first half of 2020 has been dominated by Tiger King.
The dramatic opening credits, the somber strings of the closing credits, the cliffhanger endings, and perhaps most importantly; the somewhat shameless editing to weave a narrative more similar to a scripted drama than a linear retelling of events.
To be clear; the story at the heart of Tiger King is wild, unpredictable, and totally unique. Following the exploits of the self declared ‘king’ of wildlife park owners, we’re told of a turf war between zoos and animal rights activists, with everyone boasting a dark past and supported by shady background business partners. Guns, drugs, sex, betrayals — it literally has it all, and is tied together in a package that on the surface is slickly produced and sharp as hell.
There is obviously a big but coming here.
I couldn’t help but feel worn down by both the style in which these stories are presented, and also the grim reality behind all these extremely loud, OTT characters.
The editing in Tiger King could generously be described as cheeky, and more accurately described as akin to the famed ‘Rock Bottom’ sequence in The Simpsons. While I wouldn’t say there’s outright distortion of the truth such as in that iconic clip – the heavy use of dramatic music, ominous slow motion footage of prowling big cats, and scowling B-roll of some of the key players feels extremely heavy-handed. One of the more notable talking points to spring up from this show is the allegation that Carole Baskin, a competing big cat owner to ‘the king,’ killed her wealthy husband and fed him to her tigers. The sequence in which various characters outline this theory is juxtaposed with footage of her cats gnawing on raw meat while she serenely marches around her park in slo-mo with a big small on her face — it just feels so tacky. And in a roundabout way it trivializes so much of the serious subject matter; drenched in gaudy clothes though it is.
Elsewhere, the scene where we first meet Doc Antle shows him riding in a vehicle with the show’s producers, and discussing shooting a scene where he opens the door to his home and ‘greets them for the first time,’ followed by said scene. This is what I meant by the ‘cheeky’ tone; this isn’t an unheard of practice in the making of documentary/reality TV, and is often done at the behest of filmmakers and producers. Showing that footage only served to strengthen the show’s narrative that Antle is an arrogant buffoon — which was evident regardless.
Obviously none of this is new, and I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon who has never watched a television documentary before — but it’s all laid on so thick. I can make do with the time-jumping aspect (establishing the current situation ‘tiger king’ Joe Exotic finds himself in as of 2019, and flashing back to 2016 when filming began) but a lot of the bells and whistles beyond that feel tacky, and oftentimes the show feels less fly-on-the-wall than Trailer Park Boys or The Office… which are actually scripted mockumentaries!
Rounding out my cynicism is that everyone on this show absolutely sucks. I wont pretend I’m some sort of hardcore conservationist but the keeping and breeding of big cats in the US as outlined by this show is positively grim, and not really the focal point of any of the scandal. Every few scenes when you’re reminded that is what is at the core of all of this, it’s very disheartening. And documentaries have been made about much worse subject matter, but the fact that it’s such an incidental aspect of this show doesn’t sit right with me, and I was constantly pulled out of the current goings-on when it came time to show newborn cubs being scooped away from their mothers so idiot tourists can take selfies with them. Tying back into my editing gripes; the first few episodes paint Exotic as a harmless eccentric who actually has a powerful bond with his animals, and while you might not like zoos; this guy is actually very loving! Until the halfway point, when the narrative beats the filmmakers wanted to hit are rolled out and bring you crashing back to earth.
Ultimately, Tiger King is a giddy thrill ride that tells a remarkable real life story in spectacular fashion. But for me this style of show has just come to be exhausting.