Tiger King, Netflix’s stranger-than-fiction documentary, is a bona fide phenomenon. The seven-episode series, currently topping Netflix’s top 10 most watched content list, returned on Sunday with an eighth episode: an aftershow titled The Tiger King and I. Since Tiger King became an overnight hit in the middle of COVID-19 social distancing, McHale conducted wrap-up interviews with the documentary’s subjects from his couch, over video chat. The result is a messy attempt at closure for what was ultimately a very messy series.
Tiger King has been fairly criticized for focusing on Joe Exotic’s outsized personality rather than the real victims of his toxic personality, and The Tiger King and I feels like a response to that criticism, shifting focus to the people in Joe’s orbit who were most affected by his actions. Neither Joe Exotic nor his nemesis Carole Baskin were interviewed for the aftershow, and fellow big cat owner Doc Antle is likewise absent. Present instead: Joe’s former employees Erik Cowie, Saff Saffery, and John Reinke; his campaign manager, Joshua Dial; his ex-husband John Finlay; his webseries producer Rick Kirkham; and the new owners of his zoo, Jeff and Lauren Lowe. All of them share more details about life with Joe Exotic, and what came after.
As the interviewer, McHale valiantly attempts to walk a fine line between empathizing with the documentary’s subjects, and joking about the absurdity of their lives as portrayed in Tiger King. The shifting tone is a bit jarring, but the comedian’s is just so supernaturally charming that it’s not as off-putting as it could have been. McHale’s easy confidence also seems to help the documentary’s less flamboyant subjects feel comfortable opening up. Most of them didn’t expect the kind of celebrity that being featured in the most popular documentary of all time (according to McHale) would bring them. Several interviewees remark that they can’t even make a quick Walmart run without being stopped by a fan of the show. “They don’t care about the COVID,” says former zoo manager John Reinke. “They wanna shake your hand.”
Walmart fame isn’t the only thing the Tiger King subjects agree on, though. Going by social-media reactions, nearly everyone who watches Tiger King thinks Joe is a bad person, but it almost feels like a passive acceptance. It’s as if his violent outbursts are just another weird facet of his bizarre persona. But according to those who worked with him, Joe Exotic was even worse than the documentary let on.
In one of the aftershow’s most harrowing moments, former head zookeeper Erik Cowie shares that he was the one who had to tranquilize tigers — some of them healthy young adults — before Joe euthanized them to make room for more kittens. “Those cats trusted me to the end,” Cowie says. And Rick Kirkham, who lived on the zoo compound while filming a Joe Exotic TV show, recalls that Joe once promised a woman he’d take in her aging horse to let it live out the rest of its days at the zoo. As soon as she left the parking lot, however, Joe shot the horse and fed the meat to his tigers. (Kirkham also drops that Joe was actually terrified of his big cats, and never got near them unless they were tranquilized or otherwise impaired.)
It doesn’t appear that Joe was any kinder to his human associates. John Reinke remembers Joe constantly saying that Reinke would never be able to run the zoo on his own. “He always tried to keep everyone smaller than him,” says Reinke. Joshua Dial, who witnessed Joe’s husband, Travis Maldonado, accidentally shoot himself in the head, was never given access to mental-health resources, and is still saving money for counseling. Erik Cowie was even more succinct, stating simply, “[Joe Exotic] was an asshole, man.”
One of the questions McHale asks almost everyone (along with “Who should play you in a Tiger King adaptation?”) was whether Joe Exotic should be in prison. The result is a unanimous “Yes.” Saff Saffrey, however, is the only one who extends Joe any mercy. Saffrey has been hailed as the true hero of the show — his calm demeanor in the face of everything from being misgendered to losing his arm in a tiger attack stands in stark contrast to Joe’s mania. Even while agreeing that justice was served, Saffrey doesn’t want Joe to die in prison. Citing the free Thanksgiving dinners that Joe offered his community, he says, “Joe did a lot of messed-up stuff, and that’s a fact … but he did a lot of good things too.”
Some of the directors’ choices in the original seven episodes of Tiger King feel a little icky, like spending an entire episode building the case that Carole Baskin killed her husband and showing the footage of Joshua Dial witnessing Travis Maldonado’s death. But the aftershow provides a bit of catharsis. It’s uncomfortable to be reminded about the depths of Joe Exotic’s cruelty, but it’s an important reminder, especially as Tiger King memes flood social media. The memes won’t stop, but it’s better to let the people whose lives Joe Exotic affected most to have the last word. And it’s uplifting to see them apparently doing well after leaving Joe’s toxic orbit, especially his ex-husband John Finlay, who was disappointed that the series portrayed him as a drugged-out hillbilly. (In The Tiger King and I, he’s wearing a shirt and sporting new teeth, which stands in stark contrast to his shirtless, toothless interviews on the show.)
Just like Tiger King, The Tiger King and I is messy, and it never fully settles on a tone. But it rightfully shifts focus to the real heroes of the story — the underpaid zookeepers who seem to be the only people who actually care about the animals’ wellbeing. Tiger King’s legacy will likely be complicated. Like much of true crime and reality television, it’s undeniably compelling while also being pretty exploitative. The aftershow doesn’t curb those instincts, but without Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin taking up so much space, the last thing viewers are left with is a glimpse at their feud’s fallout.
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