Tiger King: what can we learn from the new special?

A 40-minute special dropped by Netflix on Sunday checks in with some of the tangential players of the runaway hit, with only minor revelations

Calling all you cool cats and kittens – Tiger King is back. Well, kind of. After the outlandish series took the world of memes and quarantine streaming by storm since its premiere in March, Netflix dropped a previously unplanned addendum on Sunday. The Tiger King and I, a special of short, softball interviews hosted by the comedian Joel McHale from his house in Los Angeles, featured interviews with eight people adjacent to Joe Exotic: Erik Cowie, Jeff and Lauren Lowe, John Reinke, Kelci “Saff” Saffery, Joshua Dial, John Finlay and Rick Kirkham.

McHale, a breezy interviewer in AirPods, mostly avoided the show’s more controversial topics; if you’re looking for further investigation into Joe’s crimes, the death of Carole Baskin’s ex-husband or the mistreatment of big cats in the US, this is not the place. But if 40 minutes of popcorn-style interviews (how many leather jackets does Jeff Lowe own? How are Finlay’s new teeth?) then Netflix has you covered. The Tiger King and I lacked the type of bombshells that characterized the series (as well as its directors, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin) but did provide some small updates on life after Tiger King memedom. What, if anything, did we learn? (For those who haven’t seen, Tiger King spoilers ahead.)

Disputed portrayals

Tiger King - a Netflix series

Several participants have aired grievances with their portrayals in the series, most notably the big cat owner Bhagavan “Doc” Antle and Joe’s arch-nemesis Baskin, both of whom did not participate in the special. Baskin in particular took issue with the charge lobbied by several in the series (and fans online) that she killed her ex-husband, Don Lewis, in Florida. (Police have never charged her with the crime, though a sheriff in Florida has reopened the investigation; to date, tips have been fans with theories.)

On Sunday’s special, Lowe, the business partner who implicated Joe in his murder-for-hire conviction and took over his zoo, disputed his characterization. “I think they tried to sensationalize the story a bit to give it a villain,” he said. McHale was a light interviewer, treating Lowe more as a charming character rather than someone with a shady criminal history; he glossed over Lowe’s charges in Las Vegas (federal mail fraud and an illegal exotic animal business) but did ask about the couple’s nanny and Lowe’s wardrobe of leather jackets and Affliction T-shirts.

Dial, Joe Exotic’s campaign manager for his presidential and Oklahoma gubernatorial runs, disputed Lowe’s claim of unfairness: “Truth hurts,” he said, calling the series “fair” and “balanced”.

Saffery, a trans man who goes by Saff, said he wasn’t too concerned about criticism of the show for misgendering him. “I don’t think it bothered me as much as it bothered everybody else,” he said. “I didn’t really pay it any mind.”

Joe’s ex-husband Finlay, who appeared mostly shirtless and with several missing teeth in the series (the result of meth use, which he discussed openly), told McHale he was not happy with his portrayal as “a drugged-out hillbilly”, since “that was not me then. At that time, I was four to five years clean.”

The toll of Joe Exotic


Of course, most of the conversations revolved around Joe Exotic, the center of the series who has become a controversial hero to some viewers. High-profile fans such as Cardi B have suggested he was set up, and a question of pardoning Joe, legal name Joseph Maldonado-Passage, for his 22-year sentence in a murder-for-hire scheme against Baskin, has made it all the way to Donald Trump. McHale asked most of his guests if they were more loyal to Joe or the animals; Joe didn’t get any takers. “I think that justice was served, but I still don’t want to see that man die in prison,” said Saffery (though he said he would trust the tiger who bit his arm off over Joe).

Several also spoke to the lingering damage from their time in the Joe Exotic universe. Dial revealed that he’s raising money for therapy to deal with the trauma of witnessing Joe’s husband Travis Maldonado accidentally shoot himself, point-blank, in 2017 – Dial’s expression the moment he realizes Maldonado’s prank has gone horribly wrong, captured on security footage, is one of the series’s darkest and most tragic moments. Kirkham, who produced Joe Exotic TV for several years, said the attention from the series has caught up with him in Norway, where he now lives, but so have the nightmares. Despite the newfound fame from the hit series, “I regret ever meeting Joe Exotic,” he said.

Information holes ahead


The absence of the two major players in the series besides Joe, Baskin and Antle, went unmentioned by McHale; perhaps it’s because both have roundly criticized the series. Antle dismissed Tiger King as “sensationalized entertainment with paid participants” in a series of Instagram and Facebook posts, while Baskin posted a 3,000-word defense against the claim she fed her ex-husband to tigers. Neither of these disputes were mentioned. Instead, McHale simply asked the Lowes whether they thought Baskin killed her ex-husband, as Joe and many in his orbit long claimed. Unsurprisingly, they said yes.

Also missing from the special were James Garretson, Lowe’s former partner last seen riding into the sunset on a jetski, and Allen Glover, the alleged hitman hired by Joe to kill Baskin. Joe recently filed a malicious prosecution suit against both men, as well as Lowe and several others, in which he claims Lowe lied to authorities and planted evidence against him. This also went unmentioned.

Fantasy casting


McHale jumped in to one of social media’s favorite games since the series aired: who should play these outrageous real-life figures in the Hollywood adaptation? A scripted miniseries is already in the works with Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon slated to play Baskin, but other roles remain uncast. In Facebook posts somehow written while in prison, Joe has suggested Brad Pitt should play him. Asked by McHale to cast himself, Reinke picked Matthew McConaughey, Kirkham offered Billy Bob Thornton and Saffery offered Brandon Baker of Johnny Tsunami fame.

Big cats, little attention to cruelty


Tiger King has taken heat for losing the very real and tragic thread of big cat abuse and private zoos in the US amid the ostentatious personalities and petty drama of its characters, and the special mostly avoided the topic, as well. Lowe, Cowie and Kirkham each claimed they witnessed Joe kill healthy tigers, as an indictment of his character rather than private big cat zoos (Cowie, Joe’s former head keeper, now works for Lowe). “I never thought that they should be kept in captivity, but I knew the reality of it,” said Saffery when asked, briefly, about the tigers kept in Oklahoma. “And the reality of it is that they cannot be returned to the wild. And there’s not much of a wild to return to.”

Kirkham described Joe’s actions toward animals as “unbelievably cruel”, and added that perhaps the series could direct attention to animal welfare (the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would regulate ownership of exotic cats in the US and has been pushed by Baskin for years, has been introduced to but not passed the US House).

“The one thing that I think that can come out of this docuseries that is good: people are now going ‘free the animals’,” said Kirkham. “I think that’s the best thing.”


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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