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Joe Exotic, a walrus-mustached, mulleted man in a feed cap, looks into the camera in a shot from the first episode of the documentary Tiger King. Photo: Netflix

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Like many recent TV docs, Tiger King is pretty much a podcast with pictures

Inspired by the hit NPR podcast Serial, Tiger King is part of a new way of doc thinking

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The Netflix documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has become one of the most-watched and talked-about TV shows of the past month — and not just because people around the world are stuck at home, in need of diversion. With its colorful characters, its deep dive into the strange American subculture of tiger-breeders, and its multiple unsolved mysteries, this show is the television equivalent of a page-turner novel.

Tiger King’s popularity has been self-perpetuating. According to Nielsen data, only about 300,000 Netflix subscribers sampled the show on March 20, the Friday it debuted. About 750,000 followed that Saturday, and 1.3 million on Sunday. The following weekend, after days of buzz, 7.8 million people watched. Some of these viewers probably tuned in just to find out what everyone was talking about on social media, where debates have raged about everything from the truthfulness of Tiger King’s subjects to the possible ethical compromises of the series’ creators, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin.

It’s also possible that Tiger King has become a massive hit because Goode and Chaiklin so skillfully work within a form that’s become increasingly familiar to TV audiences over the past five years. This docu-series is, essentially, an illustrated version of a true-crime podcast.

Netflix has been one of the platforms popularizing this hybrid of serialized reporting and documentary film. In December 2015, the service started a national conversation about prosecutorial misconduct with Making a Murderer, the story of a man who endured 18 years of prison for one wrongful conviction, only to be dubiously arrested again for another crime. Making a Murderer followed HBO’s earlier 2015 hit The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. And both these series in a way rode the coattails of the podcast Serial, which became a sensation not long after its first episode arrived in October 2014.

A chained tiger chews on a piece of meat in a shot from Tiger King. Photo: Netflix

These days, it’s hard to find many high-profile documentaries on streaming services or cable that aren’t miniseries. 2020 alone has brought HBO’s McMillion$, Netflix’s The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, and Epix’s Slow Burn, among others. Recent hits also include Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, A&E’s Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath and Showtime’s The Trade.

In fact, there are so many of these sensationalistic docu-series lately — filled with murder, abuse, and dark conspiracies — that it’s natural to wonder whether these stories actually need to be told across multiple one-hour episodes, or whether the success of the form is driving the decisions to make documentaries longer.

Tiger King is a good case study for this phenomenon, given that Goode and Chaiklin use the format so effectively. Episode by episode, they reveal more about their eccentric cast of characters: big-cat trainer and alleged sex-cult leader Bhagavan Antle, animal-rights activist Carole Baskin and her shady past, and gay polygamist Oklahoma zoo owner, politician, country singer, and video-blogger Joe Exotic. Nearly each chapter ends with some cliffhanger revelation, as the filmmakers cleverly combine the “truth can be stranger than fiction” qualities of a documentary film with the episodic hooks of a podcast. (Unsurprisingly, the story has actually already been told in a podcast of its own, titled “Joe Exotic.”)

Of the two Tiger King directors, Chaiklin has more of a traditional documentary background. Her name is in the credits of multiple docs about injustice and politics, as a director and producer. Goode, meanwhile, is a conservationist and a hospitality-industry entrepreneur whose most notable pre-Tiger King work is limited to a handful of music videos and museum installations. This miniseries combines the duo’s interests in activism and artistry.

Tiger King is reminiscent of the work of two of the most influential modern documentary filmmakers: Errol Morris and Michael Moore. Starting with 1989’s Roger & Me, Moore has been almost as well-known for finding and interviewing Midwestern weirdos as he is for his fiery leftist politics. And Morris has long combined an interest in American oddballs and unusual crime in films like Tabloid, Gates of Heaven, Mr. Death, and The Thin Blue Line — that latter of which has become a model for true-crime docs, with its stylish reenactments and intense scrutiny of shaky evidence.

Goode and Chaiklin have been criticized for the elements of Tiger King most like Morris and Moore — the parts that make this miniseries entertaining, in other words. Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic referred to the series as a “carnival sideshow” that’s “ethically dubious,” arguing that Goode and Chaiklin seem to have filmed some of their subjects in obvious states of intoxication, and that they encourage the audience to find these people freakishly funny rather than to dwell on their cruelty and misbehavior. In The Washington Post, Sharon Guynup (who has spent years investigating the illicit tiger trade for National Geographic and other publications) complained that Tiger King does a poor job of stirring outrage over the treatment of the big cats, because Goode and Chaiklin are too preoccupied with showmanship.

These are all good points, worth weighing. But Guynup then goes so far as to say, “This show is not a documentary,” because, “There’s a lot we don’t see,” and, “Expert voices are notably absent.” And that’s a misapprehension both of what a documentary is, and what Goode and Chaiklin are doing.

It’s true that Tiger King doesn’t offer a detailed takedown of the exotic animal business. Goode and Chaiklin include graphic explanations of how some big-cat breeders make money off cute cubs while mistreating their older parents. But this series is primarily about the outsized personalities — and their often impoverished, drug-addicted followers — who seem drawn to this odd business. It’s also about this moment in our cultural history, when the internet turns nobodies into self-made celebrities, persuading them of their own righteousness.

Joe Exotic, sitting by a large tiger cage, speaks into the camera in a screenshot from Tiger King. Photo: Netflix

So no, Tiger King isn’t an objective journalistic inquiry. And even with its splashy anecdotes about meth users and missing millionaires, the series also doesn’t have much in common with the more traditional form of TV true-crime documentary: those pulpy, tabloid-derived tales of murder that populate the cable channel Investigation Discovery (which will soon be airing its own Joe Exotic doc). Goode and Chaiklin’s work is more in the tradition of documentarians who use one subject as a doorway into multiple fascinating aspects of human existence.

Again, this has also been the approach of many podcasts, which have an almost literary bent, no matter how lurid the subject. It’s certainly the style of Phoebe Judge’s Radiotopia podcast Criminal; and it’s also true of Jane Marie and Dann Gallucci’s excellent The Dream, which over the course of two seasons has examined multi-level marketing scams and the wellness industry in ways both digressive and personal. Some of the best podcasts borrow techniques from great documentaries, finding quirky and engaging ways into difficult narratives. In return, documentaries have been taking from podcasts, embracing a more leisurely, winding form of storytelling.

Did Tiger King actually need to be seven episodes long? (Or, more accurately, eight episodes, given that Netflix added a questionable epilogue.) Perhaps not. There’s a lot of story to cover, but the Joe Exotic/Carole Baskin rivalry tends to retread the same ground. Similarly, HBO’s McMillion$ stretches the absorbing story of a rigged fast-food promotion across six hours for no good reason, and Epix’s Watergate-themed Slow Burn spends six hours repeating a lot of its ideas and anecdotes. Conversely, the new HBO documentary The Scheme (about a questionable FBI sting to expose college-basketball recruiting violations) compresses a complicated plot into two hours, showing it’s still possible to get an artful, insightful non-fiction programming onto prestige cable without any artificial expansion.

Still … no one’s making Twitter memes about The Scheme, are they? For now, it seems the best way for documentarians to enter the zeitgeist is to figure out ways to stagger their stories across shorter installments, to make something that looks more like binge-worthy television than a feature film — because, for whatever psychological or sociological reason, a TV series seems to be more attractive than a movie to people looking for something to watch at home. Sure, these creative choices are being made for reasons of business, rather than art. But for the past few years, this podcast-like miniseries model is at least getting millions of TV-watchers to talk about documentaries.

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