Maybe it’s the fact that an ad for Tiger King being the number-one Netflix show in the U.S. was sprawled across the top of my Netflix homepage. Or maybe it’s the exponentially blooming meme culture surrounding Tiger King across all social media platforms. Or maybe it just comes down to a need to fill my time in quarantine.
Regardless of how you heard of Tiger King, the show’s almost notorious pop culture presence makes it very unlikely that anyone with access to social media hasn’t heard of this show. The sensationalism surrounding Tiger King is captivating, if anything.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, a true-crime documentary focusing on the dark underbelly of the very niche big cat conservation world, was released on Netflix on March 20th. There are seven episodes in the series, and each is a little under an hour.
At this point, the U.S. and the rest of the world was very rapidly transitioning from normal life to quarantine. Schools across the world were shuttering and being replaced with Zoom classes. Social distancing became the new normal.
Some time in the last week, all these Tiger King memes flooded my social media. From my Instagram feed to my Twitter timeline, there were memes everywhere. Suddenly, I felt like I knew who Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic were through these memes alone, even though I hadn’t even watched an episode of Tiger King yet.
In true quarantine form, the moment I decided to finally give into the Tiger King craze occurred over a Zoom group call when I was catching up with friends from college. Two of my friends had finished the series in a day, and called it the “perfect quarantine guilty pleasure watching material.” They promised not to spoil anything, but made sure to bring up a specific instance of Carole Baskin and a potato to remember while watching it.
Tiger King focuses on the lives and conflict of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. Joe is the longstanding “Tiger King” with a mullet to boot and the owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (G.W. Zoo) in Oklahoma. Carole Baskin is the owner of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida.
The conflict between Exotic and Baskin stems from Baskin deeming Exotic’s animal-collecting and breeding practices animal abuse. Baskin is determined to see that Exotic’s business is shut down—but Exotic fights back. He maintains different theories that Baskin was involved in the disappearance of her second husband, and over the years has sent her many death threats. In 2019, Exotic was finally arrested on attempted murder (on Baskin), animal abuse, and forgery charges.
Currently, Tiger King has an 8/10 rating on IMDb and a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The show can be described as chaotic and messy, at best, by many people. Despite these high ratings, Tiger King has faced much controversy from entertainment critics and watchers worldwide for the ethics of its subject material.
The National Review called Tiger King “fast-food reality TV at its absolute best.” The New York Times has written multiple articles about Tiger King and Joe Exotic updates in recent days. The show has gained a cult following across social media, with dedicated fans creating original memes and writing conspiracy theories.
But how can such a chaotic show become so popular and captivating? And has Tiger King’s release date amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine life affected its success?
After finishing Tiger King, I’m both wildly impressed and shocked at the world of exotic animals—something I had no idea was so intense. The conflict between Exotic and Baskin is continuously egged on throughout the show, with Baskin portrayed as the antagonist. When told about Tiger King, I was told to watch it through a “reality-TV lens”—as in, to not take it seriously.
I was told Tiger King is “a good quarantine distraction.” But no one mentioned the controversy surrounding the show’s ethics or its misogyny. The Tiger King fans I’ve talked to just deem it a guilty pleasure.
The concept of guilty-pleasure pop culture has always fascinated me. What really defines a guilty pleasure? Many people see guilty pleasures as something that people enjoy but acknowledge that they shouldn’t be held in high regard. What factors even determine why a show or movie is bad, and why should we feel bad for liking what we like?
Does this indeterminate quarantine and social-isolation period give us a little wiggle room to look away from Tiger King’s ethical issues and just engage in its cult following?
Well, reader, that’s for you to decide.