Let’s skip to the end for a second: “The Tiger King & I,” Netflix’s rush-job bonus episode of overnight mega-sensation Tiger King, is uncomfortable to watch. At face value that may sound like a glowing review, considering the docuseries’ first seven episodes churned stomachs with everything from trucks of expired Walmart meat to a Tiger-amputated arm to Carole Baskin’s wedding photos. But “The Tiger King and I” doesn’t have that same rubbernecking car crash quality. Instead it slogs through its 40-minute runtime of awkward, silly and unnecessary interviews, feeling more like a disjointed “Where Are They Now” special stroke disappointing Reddit AMA than the reunion/aftershow Netflix billed it as.
Backing up a little, on April 9th, Netflix tweeted an announcement that Tiger King, the unofficially appointed monarch of quarantine viewing, was getting an additional eighth episode serving as an aftershow with new cast interviews. The fact that the announcement was made via a video of a shirtless host Joel McHale in a cowboy hat, a draped leopard print blanket and “NETFLIX” painted directly above his crotch should have been an early warning sign that this bonus content was not to be taken seriously. But the hype train does as the hype train does, and soon the world was waiting eagerly for fresh new stories and details of the mad (tiger) king himself.
It is truly a testament to the popularity of Tiger King that even in the midst of a global health crisis it was able to score an extra episode. It’s clear why Netflix is not waiting until this pandemic is over to produce a more flashy and thoughtful followup; grab the audience while they’re already suckered in. Ergo the episode is a series of individual interviews with cast members and McHale idly sitting on his couch. This is not inherently a bad thing, especially considering it is purely due to circumstance, but the failure lies in execution.
The cast is limited for one, almost entirely made up of “supporting” cast members. The interviewees are, in order: Erik Cowie, G.W. Zoo’s head zookeeper, Jeff and Lauren Lowe, the current zoo owners, John Reinke, the zoo’s former manager, Saff Saffery, former G.W. Zoo animal keeper, Joshua Dial, Joe’s once-campaign manager during his run for governor, John Finlay, Joe’s ex-husband, and Rick Kirkham, ex-producer of Joe Exotic TV. With the exception of Lowe, cast members featured were those on the metaphoric sidelines, the unfortunate collateral damage of Joe Exotic’s antics who garnered the most sympathy among fans.
Besides Joe Exotic himself, who is currently serving a 22-year prison sentence, there are notable absences. While missing out of the opportunity to milk her now iconic “hey all you cool cats and kittens” greeting, Carole Baskin probably made the smartest and most self-preserving move not to show face. She is after all extremely pressed about her portrayal. Other noticeable absentees include cat trainer/alleged cult leader Doc Antle (another disapproving viewer), FBI informant James Garretson, and current Joe Exotic husband Dillon Passage. Even given the cast that is present, each interview in individual, and not the enticing full cast Zoom reunion the thumbnail would have you believe.
The decision to let Joel McHale host is confusing to say the least. The intent is clear. McHale is as big a fan of the show as the rest of us. He’s engrossed in the story, he binged the show quickly, he loves the memes. To have him host is like having the cast sit down in our own homes, asking them the basic questions we want to ask, even the silly ones like why Allen Glover was filmed in a bathtub or why John Finlay did his interviews shirtless. Unfortunately, while it is certainly entertaining to ask these questions, they should be asides of comic relief, not the crux of the episode.
For every question in the right direction (i.e. how Jeff Lowe reacts to his portrayal), there are four or five popcorn questions asked to reference memes and fill time. We don’t want to hear who would play John Rainke in a movie or how many leather jackets Jeff Lowe owns. We’ve already laughed amongst ourselves about James Garretson jet skiing to “Eye of the Tiger,” and we don’t really care how Jeff Lowe feels about it. We care what it is really like to be married to Joe Exotic or how he and Lowe were able to consistently keep themselves financially afloat. Give us some credit as viewers, we want to know the ins and outs of these people’s lives just as much as the filmmakers do; leave the pithy jokes on Twitter. To reduce this show to bad puns, rough cuts and iMovie claw mark transitions cheapens the seriousness of the subject matter originally presented. This is not helped by McHale’s seeming inability to read the room by dropping tasteless jabs that clearly aren’t landing. If he’s trying to be the Andy Cohen of true crime documentaries, he needs to go back to the drawing board.
The episode is thankfully not completely without interesting information, all examples of which involve Joe Exotic’s unaired actions and his former employee’s thoughts on him post-prison sentence. Saff said he’d trust the tiger that bit his arm off more than he would Joe Exotic, which is slightly surprising considering his depiction as a fairly loyal Exotic supporter on the show. Exotic even used the footage of the horrific incident for a prospective employee safety video without Saff’s permission. While Saff did say he didn’t want Exotic to die in prison, Erik Cowie pulled no punches, stating “he’s gonna die in there, so good riddance.” Rick Kirkham spoke of his guilt surrounding never reporting Joe to the authorities after witnessing crime after crime, and said he regretted ever having met him. These tidbits are not exciting or surprising in a vacuum, but might peak interest for some considering the series’ slightly more even-handed tone regarding Joe Exotic’s character.
Most heartbreaking of all is Joshua Dial, who revealed that following his traumatic witnessing of the shooting of Joe’s husband Travis Maldonado (which Dial implies was an accident, not suicide), Exotic would not provide him money for counseling, and he was forced to come to work and see the bullet hole in the wall every day for another year and half. He hopes to earn enough money to pay for therapy, and a GoFundMe has been set up in his name.
Frankly, it’s time to put this one to bed. “The Tiger King and I” is a desperate attempt to hold onto fleeting popularity, and it’s hard to believe Netflix isn’t aware of that considering how blatantly pulpy and slapdash it is. Instead of interesting supplementary stories that could drive anyone’s narrative forward, all we are left with are meme reactions, poorly conceived jokes and a total lack of self-awareness. Perhaps a second season of Tiger King could clear up interesting subtopics like some of the disturbing untold stories of just how cruel Joe was, or explore new realms of the story like everyone’s fight to put Jeff Lowe in a cell next to Joe (which he completely deserves). But unfortunately for production, by the time this pandemic is over and the embargo on filming is lifted, their 15 minutes will likely be up. Maybe then we can get Jeff Lowe in prison, ignore Joe Exotic for good, and actually start doing something to help the cats.