Why is ‘Tiger King’ the Surprise Pop-Culture Hit of the COVID-19 Crisis?

We’re all trapped at home with Joe Exotic

No one could have predicted that the big pop-culture hit of the COVID-19 crisis would be Tiger King, Netflix’s new docuseries about Joe Exotic, a larger-than-life character who runs a ramshackle tiger sanctuary. Then again, could you even imagine that you couldn’t leave the house, all the bars and restaurants would shut down, and you couldn’t get toilet paper for a month, but a vocal minority still insisted that everything was fine and that things should go back to normal as soon as possible? A month ago, this seemed like a rhetorical impossibility. Now it’s just life.

So why Tiger King, and why now? Well, Tiger King is pretty much pure, undiluted escapism at a time when we can all use it. But there’s more to it than that, of course. Part of it is our naked, undisguised desire to laugh at “Florida Man” in all his forms, even though Joe Exotic lives in Oklahoma and his great rival/mentor Doc Antle runs his competing tiger sanctuary/alleged tiger-based sex cult in Myrtle Beach. Somebody on this show always seems to be running off to Tampa to do a lot of meth and menace the nation’s leading critic of captive tiger breeding with a crossbow, so it’s certainly Florida Man-adjacent.

The overall salaciousness of the series also certainly has a great deal to do with its popularity. How do all these grotesquely unfashionable people manage to have multiple spouses, or partners, or whatever?

Then there are the animals themselves, which genuinely captivate the imagination. Working with endangered species clearly served as the therapeutic entry point for the many damaged people who wound up in the orbit of these hucksters. We see people freshly released from prison or rehab, getting off buses in rural Oklahoma desperate for work, yet there’s a certain grace in the way they interact with the cats, their spirits lifted by an abiding sense that no one is judging them.

This quickly falls apart when Exotic starts haranguing his staff during the filming of a second-rate reality show, or when he forces them to eat expired meat donated as tiger chow by the local Wal-Mart, but the same basic fascination and compassion that we all felt as children for endangered animals keeps them there. It keeps people coming and shelling out for the opportunity to take lame tiger selfies for their Tinder profiles. It keeps us watching.

You almost have to respect the sheer unbridled hustle of it all. Want to buy Joe Exotic-themed bikini briefs or Joe Exotic-endorsed “sex gel”? You could do it at his zoo gift shop. Want to watch the video for a mawkish Joe Exotic-crooned country song called “I Saw a Tiger”? It’s right there on YouTube. Doc Antle’s zoo in Myrtle Beach now has two easy locations for all your tiger-petting needs. $100 gets you a picture, while you’ll pay $339 for a three-hour Wild Encounters Day Safari Tour. Worried about the tigers in the midst of all this global turmoil? Their website provides this handy coronavirus update: “Myrtle Beach Safari is not planning to cancel any tours.”

In the pre-COVID-19 world, plenty of people were happy to pay that kind of money to say they saw a tiger. Maybe they won’t be now. Maybe the Worldwide Vegan Awakening really will come and sweep us all away, and future generations will regard the things we do to animals and their habitats as unimaginably cruel and barbaric. I’m not optimistic about that, because I think the ultimate allure of this series is something way more primal and unshakeable: we like things that we can control, things that re-assert our primacy, whether it’s over other animals or over other people.

Making fun of Florida Man feels great, until you start thinking about what you’re actually mocking. Tiger King dances around the subject of addiction, although it’s very clearly impacted many of the people who inhabit this world. Tiger-based sex cults are hilarious until the very real issues of consent and power start entering the equation. Exotic’s former husband recounts being plied with meth during his marriage, and it’s unclear whether everyone working for him was truly doing so of their own volition.

There was no way for Tiger King’s producers to know that their series would become a viral sensation with most of America homebound under quarantine. In the last episode, Exotic having been convicted of murder-for-hire charges, the producers mean us to see an explicit parallel between his imprisonment and that of the animals he kept. Being under quarantine may offer us an even deeper sense of empathy with those in captivity, even though we’re all likely to be out of our confinement a lot sooner.

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Daniel Cohen

Daniel Cohen is a software developer who lives in Syracuse, New York. He has written for Yard Work, The Guardian, and Maura Magazine.

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