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Amid all its weirdness, ‘Tiger King’ reveals some ugly truths

Joe Exotic in the Netflix series "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness."Netflix

First, I should say I’m a total sucker for stories, films, and photos that expose unseen, icky folds in America’s vast underbelly. A few of my favorite things are the racetrack reminiscences of writer Charles Bukowski, the unsettling portraiture of Diane Arbus, and all those fly-on-the-wall films of Frederick Wiseman.

So, going in, there was a good chance I’d enjoy “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” Netflix’s way-over-the-top, true-crime series about Joe Exotic, an eccentric keeper of big cats accused of plotting to kill Carole Baskin, a cunning animal-rights advocate who may or may not have put her second husband through a meat grinder before feeding him to a tiger.

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I will say that the authenticity of these hillbillies — their Dust Bowl accents, questionable tattoos, and absolute lack of pretense — makes “Tiger King” compelling viewing from the get-go. But I was also skeptical. Like everyone else sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, I wake up every morning with a profound sense of dread that lasts all day. Would the bizarre story of a gun-toting, country-crooning, gay polygamist from rural Oklahoma be an entertaining distraction, or would it just depress me even more?

Having watched the seven-episode series co-directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chailkin, I admit it’s a close call. But, ultimately, I learned a few ugly yet important truths that make “Tiger King” worthwhile. One is that the number of tigers held in captivity in the United States — 10,000 or so — far exceeds the number roaming free in rain forests and savannas around the world. (At last count, just 3,890 tigers live in the wild.) Another is that roadside zoos like the ones operated by Joe Exotic and Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a quasi cult leader who runs something called The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.), are virtually unregulated.

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Is that infuriating? Yes, it is. But should we ignore the upsetting reality of people profiting off majestic, white-whiskered cats slumped in dirty cages? No, we shouldn’t. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it seems possible that all the talk about “Tiger King” — it’s the No. 1 title on Netflix at the moment — will lead lawmakers to intervene, or at least prompt the public to think twice before paying to have their picture taken cuddling with a cub.

I think “Tiger King” also reveals something interesting about our current political climate. In 2018, Joe Exotic ran for governor of Oklahoma (after a 2016 run for president) and, in spite of his repeated, on-the-record threats to physically harm Baskin, not to mention his bigamy, Exotic’s unorthodox campaign — he handed out condoms adorned with his smiling face — had supporters.

“He’s not afraid to say what he wants to say and do what he wants to do,” one voter says, admiringly. “Sorry if he steps on some toes, but he does it anyways.”

Sound familiar? (Last week, Donald Trump Jr., inexplicably, tweeted a photo of his father with Joe Exotic’s bleached mullet superimposed on his head.)

I know some people can’t stomach “Tiger King.” They think it feels ghoulish watching all these real-life rogues endure — and inflict — so much misery. They’re not wrong. Other than John Reinke, who lost his legs in a zipline accident before coming to work at Exotic’s pitiful wildlife park, or Barbara Fisher, who walked away from “Doc” Antle’s animal compound before things got too weird, there isn’t another likable character in “Tiger King.”

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Still, despite his 22-year prison sentence in the murder-for-hire scheme, my guess is we haven’t heard the last of Joe Exotic. Netflix plans to release a new episode next week, and then who knows. America loves a comeback story, especially one as kooky as this.


Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.