With Americans (and most of the world) bunkered down at home to fight the spread of COVID-19, it was only a matter of time before the culture found a new singularity to form itself around, filling the void left since Game of Thrones unceremoniously departed the airwaves last spring. And like a fucking golden mullet-adorned phoenix rising from southeastern American swamp lands, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has enraptured audiences since its official release on March 20th, a tragicomedy of epic proportions – and more importantly, a true story that embodies the current American moment like no other.
Debuting during the COVID-19 crisis, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness‘s tale of personality fraud and capitalistic opportunism hits different, resonating through the current state of our lives.
The superficial thrills of Tiger King are obvious, grounding stories of addiction, abuse, and capitalistic greed against an absurdist backdrop of zoo keepers, animal trainers, and sex cultists (yes, I think Doc Antle is running a sex cult), offering a beautifully crafted sense of tonal dissonance that it seems filmmaker Eric Goode (who directed the seven-part miniseries, along with Rebecca Chaiklin) simply stumbled upon during his five years of filming Joe Exotic’s life. It is truly stranger than fiction, the kind of tale that would seem overwrought and ridiculous if someone actually wrote it down, or tried to film it. Polygamous marriages, murder-for-hire plots, federal investigations, romance, political campaigns… Tiger King somehow has it all, as dramatically epic as it is devastatingly tragic for characters like Joe, or his husband Travis.
But we’ve all seen the memes, shared the clips, and laughed about the insane whirlwind of drama-as-reality of Tiger King; its brilliance as a simple device for human drama is undeniable. But again, Goode and Chaiklin have seemingly stumbled into something even greater by releasing Tiger King at this moment, while the world reels from a viral pandemic – they couldn’t have planned for their series to release during this moment, of course, just as they probably didn’t expect their time following Joe Exotic around to end anywhere near the way it did.
See, while we watch governments and the global economy react to this deadly pandemic, it reveals just how shortsighted so much of society’s construction is: more importantly, it displays a certain manipulation of identity that parallels the main characters of Tiger King in striking ways. Businesses having their “best year ever” are suddenly begging for government bailouts after two weeks of closures, grocery store workers have been deemed critical societal infrastructure, and politicians touting the strength of their healthcare systems are realizing just how dissonant the goals of healthcare are with the fundamental tenants of capitalism (that is, spend what you have, and only be thinking a week ahead). With the snap of a finger, the very identity of capitalism was revealed to be a fragile, manipulated photoshop of human utopia, one that could no longer be ignorant to how under-prepared it was to protect (or in many cases, even recognize) itself for something you can’t bomb or overthrow.
By comparison, the arc of Tiger King follows the same curve (sorry – we’ve all spent too much time looking at graphs lately, I think): every episode has a moment where perspective on a character is suddenly shifted, a change that, while it comes abruptly in the narrative, can be neatly traced backwards to determine how someone’s entire identity could come crashing down, in but an instant (and often, not for the reasons you’d expect). The easiest parallel, obviously, is Joe Exotic’s descent into deranged self-absorption, his violent outbursts a cacophony of screams for help as a combination of tragedy and karma completely dismantles his life (and we can’t deny the harmony found in visual metaphors, like Joe wildly shooting at a tiger that attacks him while he’s filming a campaign ad).
But that sudden crisis of perception happens with every other character, from Joe’s libertarian campaign manager to Doc Antle, animal handler to the stars (and again, DUDE WHO IS DEFINITELY RUNNING A SEX CULT), to Carole Baskins, a woman whose story of widowed activism is worth a documentary all to itself. Goode and Chaiklin are masterful throughout the series at navigating these moments, where everyone’s behavior is given important, redefining perspective: by the end of the series, Travis’s violent outbursts, Joe’s emotional insecurities, Jeff’s entrepreneurship… all of these things are presented to the audience – smartly, often done so through the use of social media posts, furthering the divide between online presentation and real-life behavior – as by products of something else in these characters, undermining our conceptions of these people, completely redefining the impact of their defining choices in the process.
COVID-19 has been that moment for much of America, and the world, as every industry and society faces a similar crisis of identity. As people look back at the decisions made in recent weeks, months, and years, everything from our political systems to our socioeconomic structures are coming under question – and the responses by said parties, have furthered the dissonance between presentation and reality. The greatest healthcare system in the world, a healthy global economy, people who care about each other’s general well-being… these things were all assumed to be true but two weeks ago, until they were revealed to be as fragile as Joe Exotic’s ownership over his own kingdom and identity.
It seems obvious to say a story of a false king irresponsibly lording over a kingdom he doesn’t own fits the current American moment: debuting during the COVID-19 crisis, however, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness‘s tale of personality fraud and capitalistic opportunism hits different, resonating through the current state of our lives. As satisfying, depressing, and compelling the human stories of Tiger King are, how they parallel this moment in history (right down to the tigers themselves, largely forgotten by the protagonists of the series in their fight for attention and moral supremacy) is what makes it a worthy ascendant into the pantheon of cultural touchstones.