Just what we need now — or, really, at any time: yet another train wreck to passively gawk at, yet another collection of self-interested fame-starved narcissists to reward with our valuable attention, still more Honey Boo Boo-styled spew to simultaneously celebrate and feel superior to.
I was hoping, as we face the nightly ramblings of our president, that we were exhausted by circus sideshows such as Netflix’s “Tiger King” and its lead, Joe Exotic. They grab our eyes, while they nurture our instinct to rubberneck people who are often, let’s face it, mentally ill — unless you think the self-harming cosmetic-surgery-and-celebrity-obsessed people of “I Want a Famous Face” were sane. The guiding principle of these shows is that the most badly behaved people — often cruel or deluded and usually outrageous — are rewarded with more airtime and, fingers crossed, some kind of product endorsement. Meanwhile those with moral or emotional cores are expendable.
But when it comes to reality TV programming, this crabby critic is often wrong about our culture’s hunger for depravity porn. Netflix’s “Tiger King” drew a whopping 34.3 million viewers in its first 10 days, as socially distant viewers united in their OMG-tinged word-of-mouth about its ugliness and absurdity. And, according to Jeff Lowe, one of the show’s wild-animal obsessives — he’s the wealthy one who uses big cats to lure women — the excited Netflix is planning to deliver a bonus episode of “Tiger King” next week. Yes, folks, the man known as Joe Exotic (a.k.a. Joseph Maldonado-Passage) is now a star.
Bar: Lowered. Again.
And don’t worry about Joe’s future; he doesn’t plan to become a very good boy once he’s out of prison. Last week, Netflix tweeted out a brief interview with him, still mulleted, from behind bars, and he says, "When I walk out of there am I going to be as crazy as I was before? That will never change.” Of course that won’t be for many years (he has just started a 22-year sentence) — unless President Trump pardons him, as Donald Trump Jr. brashly joked he might (adding, “When they’re saying ‘We’re putting this guy away for 30 years,’ I’m saying that seems sort of aggressive”). In the meantime, there will be other docu-series keeping Joe in the mainstream (one is already scheduled on ID), as well as a fictionalized miniseries executive produced by Kate McKinnon.
The seven-episode docu-series follows Joe as he commits crimes against the animals at his Oklahoma exotic animal park, has two husbands at the same time (both of whom think of themselves as straight, one of whom kills himself), makes obtuse country music videos, and tries to have his animal-rescue nemesis murdered. There are many other strange characters afoot, of course, including his enemy, the cat-print-fabric queen Carole Baskin, and his one-time mentor, the cult-leader-ish Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, but it’s truly all about Joe. He’s a little bit Liberace, a little bit Fagin from “Oliver Twist,” and more than a little bit Whoever Kardashian.
One of the important figures in “Tiger King” is Rick Kirkham, a TV producer who was trying to make a reality show about Joe before the footage — which contained incriminating material against Joe — was lost in an arson fire at Joe’s zoo. “Joe Exotic was everything I had dreamed of in finding a reality show,” he says. Even more than his animals, Kirkham says, Joe “would have done anything to become famous.” He’s a fame-a-holic, like so many people. That’s why it was no big surprise — and I’m not joking — when Joe decided to make a run for president in 2016. His outsize ego demanded the biggest office in the land.
I have no problem with “Tiger King” for its general subject matter, which opens up the world of exotic animals for viewers, with all of its dangers, exploitation, and brutality. But I do recoil at shows that turn dreadful subjects into occasions for laughter and entertainment. Obviously, there are more dangerous things going on in the world than watching men and women behaving badly, but you ignore the slow creep of reality TV’s darkest cultural influence at your own risk.