Is Tiger King really that good?

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If there’s a time for binge-watching TV, lockdown is surely it. Turning to streaming sites like Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Netflix to ease self-isolation boredom is to be expected. But one streaming service seems to be paving the way ahead of its competitors. Last week, Netflix became the highest valued entertainment company in the United States. And that’s not the only new phenomenon that’s emerging in the TV world.  

Netflix’s success comes in tandem with the eruption of an unprecedented online cult sensation, which followed the release of their original documentary series. I’m talking, of course, about Tiger King. Within ten days of its existence, on the 20th March 2020, more than 34.3 million people had watched the documentary, making it one of Netflix’s biggest launches to date. This certainly speaks to a population stuck at home with nothing better to do, but these kind of viewing figures have never been seen before, nor has such a strong viral presence sprang up overnight.

We all remember the first time we heard the title Tiger King. It began as a benign question from friends, “Have you seen it yet? You have to see it!”. Next, social media was exploding with memes depicting national unity during the Covid-19 pandemic being upheld by the show’s entertainment value. It became the inspiration for virtual pub quizzes held over Zoom, a viral dance on none other than TikTok and even a crochet kit where you can knit your own cuddly Joe Exotic. This frenzy of adoration for the show, whether for the series itself or for its sheer absurdity, even translated into politics when an American reporter at a coronavirus press conference asked President Donald Trump whether he would pardon Joe Exotic from his prison sentence. Not having seen Tiger King, you could be mistaken for thinking Mr Exotic a global hero, when the reality is far from it.

Is this programme really as gripping as the internet so loudly testifies? Or is this newfound cult following the product of isolated people desperate for a shared connection with their far away friends, something to discuss other than the “C word”. On watching the series, I wasn’t sure it lived up to the hype. But I was definitely sure it didn’t warrant the adoration of Exotic and his comrades.

Tiger King doesn’t glorify animal abuse, but nor does it lambast it either. It’s clear the main focus of the documentary is not the trapped cats themselves but the egotistical people – Exotic, Doc Antle, Jeff Lowe – behind their imprisonment, whose primary goal is fame. And that’s just where the problem lies. As the series progresses and the offences rack up, our trust in all involved wavers. By episode five, deciphering the truth becomes near impossible and our moral compasses are skewered, which is perhaps what has facilitated such a dramatic response on social media. In sensationalising a criminal, or rather a whole host of unlawful people, we are handing their desires to them on a plate; a few weeks ago Exotic announced his plans to return to showbiz with his own radio show hosted from prison. By pressing “send” on every harmless meme, we quickly forget the animals and people who have been harmed at the expense of fame. It’s difficult to predict whether this reaction would have happened under normal circumstances, or whether Exotic-fever can be expected in the future for Netflix’s meme-ready, TikTok-dancing audience.

Francesca Lister-Fell


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