If you’ve been on the internet, turned on the television, or just generally existed these past few weeks, you’ve probably heard of Tiger King. The docuseries premiered on Netflix on March 20 and centers on Joe Exotic, the Oklahoma man who (1) owned and bred hundreds of tigers, (2) entered into a less-than-legal three-way marriage with two men, and (3) is currently imprisoned for charges that include killing five tigers and attempting to hire a hitman to kill Carole Baskin, the owner of a big cat sanctuary in Florida. (If you’ve watched the show, you know those are just the Joe Exotic bullet points—I didn’t even mention his dealings in meth, the arson that burned down his video lab slash alligator habitat, or his bizarre country music career.)
By all accounts this series is one of the most popular things Netflix has ever produced. Nielsen reported that the show had 34 million viewers within the first 10 days of its release, second only to the third season of Stranger Things, and it has been memed to death across the web. To capitalize on this buzz, Netflix put together a wrap-up show that premiered Sunday and featured Joel McHale interviewing a few of the people from the original series: John Finlay, one of Joe’s (now-ex) husbands; Rick Kirkham, a former video producer of Joe’s; John Reinke, a former manager at the zoo; Kelci “Saff” Saffery, an animal keeper (who famously had his arm ripped off by a tiger and returned to work within the same week); Erik Cowie, the head keeper at the zoo; Jeff and Lauren Lowe, the new operators of the zoo; and Joshua Dial, who ran Joe’s campaigns for political office.
Few of the new interviews provided information that didn’t come across in the series, but there are still a few takeaways from this special:
Netflix Knows How Popular Tiger King Is
“Do we really need this?”
That’s the first question that came to my mind as Joel McHale’s coiffed head filled my TV screen Sunday morning. In this time of quarantine and social distancing, I’ll pretty much take whatever content I can get, but this type of special—rushed, filmed remotely on iPhones, and largely taking place in McHale’s Los Angeles home—seemed … unnecessary? Many of the interviewees spoke about how their lives had changed since the series dropped—how they’re getting recognized at Walmart, asked to take photos, and, in Rick Kirkham’s case, seeing two-page specials in Norwegian newspapers written about them. But it’s pretty clear why Netflix did this.
Sure, the show’s viewership numbers were probably inflated by the fact that COVID-19 is keeping people around the world in their homes, but any time 34 million people tune in for anything, it’s a pretty big deal. And Netflix wanted to maximize it. So they got the gang back together for one more run—and it certainly didn’t seem like they had to twist McHale’s arm to host.
Overall, the special episode was light on new substance. Instead, it served as a display of Tiger King’s continued popularity—and of our willingness to eat up any and all Joe Exotic content.
Joe Exotic Was Even Worse Off-Camera
If you watched the series in totality, I desperately hope your main takeaway was that all of these big-cat hoarders are awful and that they should have their operations closed down. Each of the main characters in the series had their own severe issues: Joe Exotic, well we’ve pretty much covered him; Doc Antle is essentially running a cult under the guise of a zoo in South Carolina; Carole Baskin’s second husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and she was the only one who stood to benefit; and there are so many more. Yet somehow, even more awful goings-on apparently happened off camera.
Many of the people interviewed saw the new episode as their opportunity to bash Joe, and I think it’s fair to say that nobody held back. Almost every person brought in was asked whether they would consider themselves more loyal to Joe or the cats, and there was only one answer. Cowie, the head zookeeper, said that screaming matches were a near constant under Joe’s management. Dial said that after he witnessed Travis Maldonado’s accidental death, he was never offered counseling and he had to work in the room where it happened every day after. The Lowes said that the tigers Joe was convicted of killing weren’t sickly, but instead healthy 2-to-3-year-old animals. Reinke said Joe blew holes into Reinke’s golf cart and cabin. And asked whom he would trust first again, Joe or the tiger that ripped his arm off, Saff didn’t hesitate before choosing the tiger.
Given all the terrible things that were shown on screen, you may have come away from the series thinking we’d seen the extent of the awfulness that occurred at Joe Exotic’s zoo. Apparently that’s not the case.
This Saga Is Anything But Over
Multiple interviewees expressed a desire for things to return to normal—for people to stop recognizing them on the street, to be allowed to move on from their time with Joe in peace. But it doesn’t seem like that’ll happen any time soon.
Not only has Joe filed appeals for his convictions, but there has also been talk of turning Tiger King into a movie when the COVID-19 restrictions lift. (Asked who should play them, Saff said “the kid who played Johnny Tsunami,” Kirkham said Billy Bob Thornton, and Reinke said Matthew McConaughey.)
If there’s anything this special has illuminated, it’s that the Tiger King saga is far from over. In fact it may only just be beginning.