Netflix’s wild documentary ‘Tiger King’ looks like a cartoon but has plenty to teach us about morality right now

Netflix has hit a rich seam of clever telly disguised as trash

We’re learning a lot at the moment, not just about other people, but about ourselves too. We’re being pushed beyond the boundaries of our experience, our lives turned upside down, our routines changed, our support networks available only at a distance. The coronavirus crisis has made a moral quandary of the most simple things in our lives, and thrown logic out of the window. The most basic way to do your bit is to do nothing at all. Shopping requires considerations we’ve been privileged enough to never even think of before. We feel guilty for stepping beyond the front door.

Quick as a flash, homegrown content providers Channel 4 and the BBC have essentially turned into animated Keep Calm & Carry On posters, the Beeb choosing to re-run cosy sitcoms like Gavin & Stacy in primetime slots as opiate for the masses, while Channel 4 puts the batteries back in the crumpled husk of Jamie Oliver to teach us all how to cook, because presumably we’d all be surviving off carpet fluff and fingernails without him.

Right now is a depressing time if you allow it to be and the response from our mainstream media taps into a toxic part of our collective psyche that demands happy hardship. But we’ve been enduring a national identity crisis for years now. We are a changed people following the division of three miserable years of Brexit Brexit Brexit. While the older generation hark back to a comfy idea of Britishness that no longer exists (show me the famous British stoicism next time I’m trying to find bog roll in another ransacked supermarket), the younger generation identify more broadly as global citizens.

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So it’s no wonder, really, that among the young and young-ish the most talked about shows of the lockdown era are on Netflix. The US streaming giant has stepped up to the mark with a raft of content that speaks to the specifics of a situation we are experiencing all over the world, together and in isolation – but not just with the shows you might assume.

Tiger King
Joe Exotic in ‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness’. Credit: Netflix

The Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem And Madness, has a title that reads like a National Enquirer headline, and at first glance looks to be exploitation telly at its worst. Its central character, Joe Exotic, is an outlandishly dressed, mullet-haired, gun-toting, country ‘n’ western singing, gay, polygamous, TV-presenting, libertarian private zookeeper. His nemesis, Carole Baskin, is a self-professed animal rights activist and keeper of an exotic animal sanctuary which looks curiously like a private zoo. As the show unfurls a plot wilder than any drama ever filmed, Joe’s hunger for the celebrity life extends into political ambition, a self-funded reality series, two whole albums of music and, with it, profligate spending and increasing meanness to those around him.

The supporting cast of characters is as rich as the leads, from JoeExotic.TV director Rick Kirkham, a shady, stetson-wearing Johnny Cash type who appears to have stepped out of a David Lynch film, to Joshua Dial, the Walmart employee-turned-political campaign director who acts as the programme’s audience avatar, an incredulous ‘normal’ person in a world of crazy.

Exotic animals are presented as a kind of One Ring, corrupting those in possession, or perhaps more realistically, appealing to those with unreasonably high opinions of their own looks, power, wealth, influence and personality. It’s a netherworld where sketchy behaviour, confused by incompatible state and federal law, is commonplace, and polygamy is a common thread. They take names like WWE wrestlers or supervillains – Joe Exotic, Doc Antle.

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Tiger King
The new documentary focuses on a roadside Oklahoma zoo. Credit: Netflix

At the other end of the spectrum we have the lower-rung zoo keepers, devoid of ego, devoted to the welfare of the animals. Joe’s crew tend to be ex-cons and addicts to whom he’s given a fresh start, and who display devotion until the bitterest moments of his demise. We can all learn a lot from the stoicism of Kelci ‘Saff’ Saffery, the keeper mauled by a tiger who chose to amputate her arm rather than endure a couple of months of surgery, and was back at work within a week.

Carole, meanwhile, pays her staff nothing, and rewards them with qualifications that are valid nowhere else. Her tricks are like those employed by the Church Of Scientology, in which unblinking devotion and investment is rewarded with externally worthless status. At the beginning, we feel that Carole implicitly has the moral high ground. As the series unfolds, we learn of suspicions over the disappearance of her multi-millionaire husband, who Joe believes was fed to her tigers, and of her ‘get-rich-quick’ videos. She soon starts to look more like a cult leader than an animal lover. Yet we have the backstories too, the origins of these extreme behaviours in hardscrabble upbringings.

It chimes with these confusing times because the heroes and the villains of the piece are set in shifting sands. We see survival, morality, personality, charisma, greed, altruism, leadership, generosity, tragedy, love, death, triumph, humour, tears, retribution, justice and the lack thereof. We see all of human life, exaggerated as if watching a cartoon, and as a viewer it’s hard to believe these are real people at all – but they are.

It follows another flagship Netflix show which, outwardly, looked trashier than Rita Ora’s non-recyclables bin: Love Is Blind. You know the premise and have, in all likelihood, watched the lot: a bunch of US singles chatted to each other from isolated ‘pods’ in which they could hear – but not see – their conversation partner. The only way to meet in person was to propose, after which they went on a couples’ holiday, moved in together and walked down the aisle – all within a month. While viewers cringed themselves inside out watching Jessica ‘Messica’ Batten try to convince herself she fancied Mark Cuevas, her betrothed, and not Matthew Barnett, the one that got away, we also saw how Giannina ‘GiGi’ Gibelli and her partner Damian Powers balanced each other out, how Lauren Speed and Cameron Hamilton found a deep, genuine connection, and how Kelly Chase and Kenny Barnes had to figure out that a fairytale ending was not within their grasp.

In the finale – a studio-based reunion show – we might have expected explosive encounters and blooper reels. Instead, we witnessed a bizarrely mature discussion about the nature of attraction, and forgiveness, particularly between Diamond Jack and Carlton Morton, who had an ugly argument on the holiday that saw the latter – a bisexual man – face an onslaught of online abuse.

The common thread between Tiger King and Love Is Blind is a sense of the flawed nature of humanity and the naivety of seeing people purely as good or evil, as Hollywood has always dictated we should. We’ve spent years rejecting nuance, polarising our viewpoints and narrowing our field of vision thanks to social media and curated content. As we’re stuck inside learning about ourselves, whether we want to or not, programmes like these can do more than give us pause to mindlessly pass the time; they can teach us plenty about the beauty and ugliness of humanity, and the ripple effect of a person’s actions on those around them, and those around them in turn. In each, you’re never quite sure if it’s real, or who’s right and who’s wrong, which is – it must be said – a very 2020 state of being.

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