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Netflix’s Tiger King Is 2020 in a Nutshell

Stop what you're doing and watch this series IMMEDIATELY.

It would be a gross understatement to say that life as we know it is currently off the rails. We are not merely off the rails, but the rails themselves have been ripped up, melted down, and twisted into the kind of nightmare furniture that Delia Deetz would use to furnish her haunted country home.

Art and pop culture often respond to these extraordinary times, acting as a mirror that reflects our own experiences. And in this, the year of our lord 2020, that mirror has arrived, covered in tiger fur, sequins, and pink camo assault rifles. I am talking of course about Netflix’s new true crime docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

The seven-episode limited series feels impossible to summarize, but the gist of it is this: Oklahoma roadside zoo owner Joe Exotic, a polygamist big cat wrangler and wannabe country music star, engages in a years-long feud with big cat sanctuary owner Carol Baskin, which involves death threats, murder for hire, sabotage, and millions of dollars.

But believe me when I tell you that this barely scratches the surface of what this overstuffed documentary series delivers. As someone who consumes, shall we say, A LOT of pop culture, I am not easily shocked. Yet I found myself constantly gobsmacked as the story continued to escalate in increasingly bizarre and unbelievable ways.

Quite simply, if this was a fictional story, you would not believe it. It’s got too much going on, too many tangents, and a host of utterly bizarre supporting characters. It’s as if Bill Hader’s Stefon invented a reality show. This show has everything: sex cults, ligers, sequins, political campaigns, drug lords, felonies, meth. The list goes on.

But what truly makes the series resonant for 2020 is its characters’ complete and utter devotion to the American ideal of “freedom”. These people cage dangerous wild animals because it’s their “right.” They stockpile automatic weapons and blow things up on a regular basis while cheering the 2nd Amendment. They make open death threats and wild claims while crowing about freedom of speech.

Tiger King is a look at what happens when America’s rampaging Id revels in its own excesses. It’s “I do what I want!” on steroids, if those steroids were meth. The fifth episode, “Make America Exotic Again” follows Joe Exotic’s campaigns for president, and then for governor. Because OF COURSE this guy thinks he should be running the country. Of course he equates a run for office with a publicity campaign. Sound familiar?

While the series begins with a look at people who own exotic animals, the interpersonal drama soon overtakes the health and well-being of these magnificent creatures. Too many flamboyant personalities screaming at one another, drowning in litigation and finger-pointing and anger. The metaphor couldn’t be more clear.

Our government is run by these delusional yahoos, and we are the tigers.

(image: Netflix)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.