Second Sight: Counterfeit Dreams and Tiger Kings

The illusion of the American dream is concept that has been explored in virtually every form of artistic expression.  The irony that during a global pandemic, a time in which American exceptionalism is being deconstructed on a daily basis, a show about the unrelenting nightmares of poverty, unregulated capitalism, and animal abuse would become a cultural phenomenon is perhaps one of the few boons of these surreal times.  

Focusing on the exotic animal underworld, Tiger King explores a labyrinth of narcissism, criminal conspiracy, and appalling manipulation of poor, uneducated youths, social media do-gooders and arm's length activists.  Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin present the material as a serial drama, delving into the lives of several celebrities within this esoteric, shockingly interconnected community of charlatans, cult leaders, and killers.  At the center of the storm is Joe Exotic, an eccentric and unhinged owner of private zoo who makes his fortune through selling tiger and lion petting services.  Opposite the colorful king is Carole Baskin, leader of Big Cat Rescue who opposes Joe’s treatment of the animals.  As the series progresses each member of this tragically joined duo are explored ad nauseam, however, while their relationship is the center, there are many other characters and stories that connect and evolve around them, creating a drug and sex fueled web of unspeakable animal care practices and vampiric financial design. 

While some criticism has been levied for the way the show depicts its principals, one of the strongest elements at play is how everything is presented as is.  Yes, the ultimate result is essentially a reality horror story playing out in front of the viewer, however, it is the revelation that this is taking place right now in 2020 that is perhaps the most terrifying aspect.  Organized crime exposes and human trafficking series deal with grim subject matter frequently, and yet, nothing has attained a level of popularity like Tiger King.  This is most likely due to an unforeseen collision of several things.  First, the world is a captive audience, held hostage by an invisible killer that is ravaging the Earth.  Second, the personalities that comprise this strange group of business people are quite simply, born for the camera.  Each them is the living embodiment of an urban legend, the personification of the dark side of unregulated greed. Finally, there is an unapologetic truth under the grimy surface of the story: Criminals and their marks (both clientele and employees) are slaves to the economic machine.  Employees work for next to nothing, and yet continue to stay on, even when critically injured.  Families pay thousands of dollars to simply pet a tiger cub.  When punishments are finally levied, the purveyors confess that their only way to offer recompense is by continuing their exploits, signaling the awful truth of capitalist carousel.  

Perhaps the shows biggest crime is that atrocities visited upon the animals lurk only in the large shadow cast by Joe and his bizarre band of outlaws and con men.  The awful heart at the center of this underworld (both animal abuse and the frequent manipulation of the impoverished) are drowned out by Joe Exotic's undeniable aura of charisma and this is the dark magic of Tiger King.  These are irredeemable people, and yet the viewer is unable to stop watching due to the manner in which they’re presented, culminating in a metaphorical knife fight in a phone booth between the guilty desperately trying to avoid prosecution.  The fact that the perfect storm of real-life tragedy, larger than life real characters, and extremely proficient camera work (some of which was done by Josh Safdie) created a cultural zeitgeist only reinforces the point.  The greatest crime is in how sides are being taken, conspiracies are being touted while, inexplicably, these beautiful, endangered creatures remain in captivity. 

Now streaming on Netflix, Tiger King is one of the most important American films(series) of the century.  The uncomfortable truths that it exposes about our culture, our lives, and ultimately about our tolerance is staggering.  The revelation of a vast criminal underground of snake oil salespeople with their own complicated and serpentine plans only further instills a sense of wrongness as the world slowly begins to burn outside our shuddered windows.  Ultimately, this is the kind of experience that will either repulse or entice.  The trick is in discerning the layers of corruption and degradation that festers around the animals while their jailers profit and settle scores with one another.  The existence of a cabal of crazed, lawless, insidious, and most importantly intelligent grifters might initially seem humorous, perhaps even impossible, however as the final episode concludes, the inescapable truth that this could only happen in America becomes an uncomfortable companion in solitude.

--Kyle Jonathan