Why it’s time to say goodbye to Tiger King

Netflix’s continued obsession with the pandemic hit has brought a follow-up special, a second season and now a spin-off but enough is enough

To think of Tiger King is to immediately transport yourself to the heady days of lockdown 2020. Remember it? Remember how filled with artificial purpose we all were? We did Zoom quizzes with all our friends! We made banana bread! We clapped for frontline workers!

Looking back, it seems relatively clear that all those things were stupid. Nobody wants to spend more time on Zoom than they have to. Nobody likes banana bread. The clapping didn’t change anything. And as for Tiger King? With the benefit of hindsight, Christ, we chose the wrong show to obsess over. Looking back, Tiger King was grubby and exploitative. Once you’d crossed the “Are these people for real?” hurdle, you found yourself sitting through a carnival of monstrous behaviour. Tiger King was the documentary equivalent of that old Black Mirror episode: as fun as it sounds to watch someone have sex with a pig, at the end of the day you actually have to watch someone have sex with a pig.

Unfortunately, Netflix didn’t get this particular memo. The algorithm said that Tiger King was a hit so, guess what, now we’ve got loads more Tiger King to wade through. Last month’s Tiger King 2 tried to keep the party going, but it was clearly running on fumes. The story was over, participants had backed out and the whole thing was pasted together from scraps. It was less a documentary and more a hopelessly padded out DVD extra. As such, the buzz that accompanied the first season was noticeably duller the second time around.

Sensible heads would have ended things there. But Netflix, in all its infinite wisdom, has already churned out yet another Tiger King series. This one, Tiger King: The Doc Antle Story, takes the form of a true crime documentary, aimed at a peripheral character from season one.

You will probably remember Doc Antle. We met him in the second episode of the first Tiger King, running a private zoo that Joe Exotic desperately wanted to emulate. Antle wasn’t as big a character as Exotic – who is? – but there was something creepy and cultish about his time onscreen. Why were all his staff young women? Was he married to all of them? Did he keep them in stables? Was there a bigger story going on?

Inevitably, yes. Netflix has asked reviewers not to reveal too many specifics about The Doc Antle Story, but the short explanation is that Antle is not a great guy. Over the course of three episodes, we’re fed a slow drip of his abuses. And there are many to get through: coercion, child abuse, underage marriage, near-starvation, animal cruelty, foggy accusations of murder. One by one, victims and acquaintances from every stage of Antle’s life reveal a pattern of behaviour that is harrowing and ugly.

The Doc Antle Story, then, is not Tiger King. It’s about a predator who takes what he wants without care or thought. There is none of the dayglo sideshow fizz of Tiger King here. Joe Exotic, for all his obvious flaws, had an element of joy to him. This is the flipside. This is relentlessly dour.

However, the production team doesn’t seem to realise that. For some reason the Tiger King DNA is more important to them than the actual story, so they spend much of it gunning for kook. It’s still a cavalcade of bad taste and unfortunate hair. The incidental music is lighthearted. At one point we are treated to a clip of a man juggling chainsaws.

‘One by one, victims and acquaintances from every stage of Antle’s life reveal a pattern of behaviour that is harrowing and ugly.’
‘One by one, victims and acquaintances from every stage of Antle’s life reveal a pattern of behaviour that is harrowing and ugly.’ Photograph: Netflix

It feels to me as though the producers set out to make an extension of Tiger King and then, when they realised that they’d actually created a document of systematic abuse, panicked. Tiger King itself could get away with being cartoonish, because Joe Exotic was jailed for attempted murder. There’s something darkly funny about that, because failure is baked into the charge. Had Exotic actually killed Carole Baskin, Tiger King would not have worked.

But Antle’s alleged abuse is unspeakably grim. It can’t be jollied up. The sadness overwhelms everything, and the producers’ various attempts to lighten the mood backfire hideously. Tiger King has always been grotty and exploitative. But this series, full of distraught victims whose lives have been ruined by the actions of one man, pushes the envelope too far.

By throwing out three series in the space of a year and a bit, you get the feeling that Netflix is trying to create a franchise out of Tiger King; an expanded universe of all its gnarled and wrongheaded characters. Judging by The Doc Antle Story, the Tigerverse has already expanded far too much. A sharp contraction is now in order.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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