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Tiger King 2 struggles to find a purpose

Netflix’s monster-hit docu-series catches up on Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and more, without much new to report

Carole Baskin’s former husband Don Lewis in a file photo, making a face as he cradles a lynx that’s pawing at his face Photo: Netflix

What was 2020’s Netflix sensation Tiger King really about? Was it a wild tour through the eccentric subculture of entrepreneurs and conservationists who exhibit big cats in private zoos? Or was it a hard-hitting true-crime story about bitter rivals Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, who each may have participated in separate, bizarre murder plots? When the docu-series premiered, right as people were starting to hunker down at home, avoiding an emerging pandemic, what exactly made it so addicting?

These aren’t idle questions. They’re what Tiger King directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin surely asked themselves before starting work on the series’ five-episode second season, now available on Netflix. Yet judging by what they produced, they never figured out the answers. The Tiger King sequel is a frustrating mess, with none of the gripping storytelling that made the original run such a guilty pleasure.

It’s hard to figure out what this second season is intended to be. The first episode is the most promising one of the whole batch. It takes a larger look at the whole Tiger King phenomenon, recalling how the show swept across the United States during what turned out to be a very strange year for America and the world. The episode captures the many ways that the documentary’s subjects became almost like fictional characters to the public, some of whom dressed up like Joe and Carole for Halloween, or fiercely debated the guilt or innocence of the series’ participants.

Wildlife owner Tim Stark, shirtless and with a monkey perched on his shoulder, standing in front of a trailer in Tiger King 2
Wildlife owner Tim Stark in Tiger King 2
Photo: Netflix

Then episodes two and three change course, disappearing once again down the rabbit hole of the accusations against Carole Baskin, who — as covered fairly thoroughly in season 1 — has been suspected of foul play in the 1997 disappearance of her wealthy ex-husband Don Lewis. The new material adds little, except for fresh interviews with people who rehash a lot of the same information, in tedious detail.

Episodes four and five pivot again, and function the most like a proper sequel to the first Tiger King. The first season exposed the lack of governmental oversight at “wildlife encounter” tourist spots, and drew demands both from animal-rights activists and from ordinary concerned citizens that the government shut down these sketchy operations. The last two episodes of season 2 document the pressure put on Jeff Lowe and Tim Stark, two of the Joe Exotic-like zoo owners featured in the previous run. Defiant to the last, even as federal agents roll onto their properties to take their animals away, Lowe and Stark grow increasingly frantic, making desperate moves. Their scenes are easily the most exciting of these five episodes, though like the rest of this season, their stories aren’t especially well woven into the whole.

Throughout all the episodes, Goode and Chaiklin return regularly to Joe Exotic, still sitting in prison, where he’s been following what’s gone on since Tiger King debuted, and hoping someone from his old life will step up and help exonerate him of the charge that he hired a hitman to kill Baskin. The new season covers the failed efforts to get Joe a presidential pardon, including some startling footage of the team behind the campaign unfurling a banner at a January 6th D.C. “Stop the Steal” rally, and drawing some angry reactions. Lawyer John Phillips eventually moves from representing Don Lewis’ family (and losing their trust after convincing them to appear in an ad during Carole Baskin’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars) to representing Exotic, and trying to get all the people who turned on him to rally to his defense.

But just as Exotic’s case seems about to take a turn in his favor, the season abruptly ends, suggesting that somewhere down the road, like it or not, we can expect a Tiger King season 3. Goode and Chaiklin then tag on an epilogue that’s almost like an afterthought, revealing the potentially happier futures for all the big cats seized from Stark, Lowe, and Exotic.

That epilogue at least projects the sense of purpose that the rest of the season is lacking. Tiger King is trashy, but season 1 did shine a light on some disturbing mistreatment of animals, and season 2 shows that some good was done because of it. But the epilogue also smacks of self-congratulation — as does the season’s prologue, which celebrates the large audience the series drew when people were suddenly stuck at home last year, anxious for any kind of fun shared experience.

Also, the filmmakers ultimately double down on some of the most distasteful elements from their initial run. Once again, they let their subjects serve up unsubstantiated accusations of criminal behavior, couched as dishy gossip. They turn real people’s lives and deaths into the stuff of soap operas, for viewers to laugh at, gasp over, and scrutinize.

In episode 1, at least, it almost seems like Tiger King is going to be self-critical, getting into how the series’ subjects have been handling their newfound fame — which in some cases has meant having terrifyingly hateful comments directed at them, online and in public. (Carole Baskin, who has been the most criticized, notably does not sit down for a new interview in this season, and is currently suing Netflix for including her at all.) Some of the new episodes’ most provocative moments return to this idea that sudden celebrity can obscure the lines between fact and fiction, like when Don Lewis’ family sets up a tip-line about his disappearance, and it’s inevitably gets flooded with calls from people who want to share theories they developed only from watching Tiger King.

Joe Exotic and family in a file photo seen in Tiger King 2
Joe Exotic and family in a Tiger King 2 file photo
Photo: Netflix

And sure, the team behind this show still has a sense of what kind of weirdness their fans want to see, whether it’s a psychic hired by Don Lewis’ family vomiting as he walks around what he swears is the place where Lewis was killed, or it’s Jeff Lowe building a little strip club in the middle of his zoo, complete with a hot tub suite for when “Shaq and Flav” drop by. The people in this microcosm are still perversely fascinating — and perhaps none more than Tim Stark, who comes across like the poster child for 2020s “live free and die” American life, as he insists that no one can tell him what he can and can’t do with any animal he owns.

Still, season 1 put all these odd ducks in a well-ordered row, telling a story with carefully timed twists at the end of nearly every episode. Season 2, on the other hand, continues some parts of that story and merely repeats others, haphazardly strewing all these loosely connected pieces across 200 or so shapeless minutes. Maybe we need the feds to step in again. Can someone please come along and liberate the more entertaining parts of Tiger King?

Season 2 of Tiger King is streaming on Netflix now.