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‘Tiger King’ Still Reigns Supreme—and Now Nicolas Cage Is Involved

The Netflix docuseries is the defining show of the era of social distancing, which means it’ll be mined for future content for years to come

Ringer illustration

Despite the undeniable fact that Tiger King is already a TV show, there’s going to be a Tiger King TV show. No, not that one. Another one. And this Tiger King show is going to star Nicolas Cage.

The Netflix docuseries whose release perfectly coincided with the onset of widespread social distancing measures throughout the United States in late March is, of course, based on real people, making their story ripe for scripted adaptation. Central figure Joe “Exotic” Schreibvogel, an exotic zookeeper once based in Oklahoma and now incarcerated for attempting to commission the murder of his nemesis, is the definition of a public persona, a pathological attention seeker who ran for president in 2016 and released elaborate music videos accusing his rival of feeding her missing spouse to tigers. Said rival, Carole Baskin, is only slightly less of a self-made celebrity, leveraging the power of social media to rally support for her Florida nonprofit Big Cat Rescue.

But Tiger King filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin do not have a monopoly on the story of Joe Exotic’s downfall. In fact, they were hardly the first to report it. Also in March, the podcast network Wondery released its own account of Joe Exotic: Tiger King, hosted by journalist Robert Moor; in June 2019, Texas Monthly published “Joe Exotic: A Dark Journey Into the World of a Man Gone Wild,” an investigation by writer Leif Reigstad. The Nic Cage project will be overseen by American Vandal’s Dan Lagana under his overall development deal at CBS Television Studios, where he’d optioned the Texas Monthly story the month of its publication. The previously announced series, starring SNL’s Kate McKinnon as Baskin and developed under the umbrella of Universal Content Productions, is based on the Wondery podcast. Neither the Cage nor the McKinnon show has a network or streaming service signed on as distributor yet, meaning both are in the very early stages of their paths to the screen. Given the current obstacles to large-scale productions, they may stay that way for a while.

With almost any other project, the takeaway would be Nic Cage headlining the first television series of his career, a twist still worth dwelling on. Armchair casting for Tiger King’s primary players has been a favorite pastime of the internet for the past several weeks, with Cage a popular choice for channeling Joe Exotic’s thoroughly chaotic energy. (When looking for someone to convincingly portray a man with hundreds of deadly pets and more earrings than brain cells, best call up this guy.) In a world where Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon are TV regulars, Cage making the leap may not pack as much of a punch, but the transition is still a surprising one, to the point where throwing his name around had an “it’ll never happen, but it’s nice to dream” quality to it.

But the main impression from the pileup of Tiger King projects—or rather, the pileup of projects sourced from the same real-life events as Tiger King—is just how omnipresent the tale of Joe vs. Carole remains more than a month after Tiger King’s release. The standard media cycle of memes and hot takes (Carole Baskin is just a big-hearted cat lover with a weirdly flat affect, leave her alone!) has extended far enough to overlap with the much longer life cycle of Hollywood adaptations. The intervening weeks have seen the premiere of a much-mocked streaming app, a widely hyped literary adaptation, and even more Netflix fare designed to prompt more jeers than genuine enthusiasm. After all that, Tiger King sits comfortably as the defining show of quarantine. Just this past weekend, Baskin got pranked into doing an interview with who she thought was Jimmy Fallon, extending its reign by another few days.

By the time Cage’s and McKinnon’s dueling shows come out—if they come out; development hell is real and hype-ginning announcements can be premature, as anyone who remembers Confederate knows—our immediate crisis will hopefully be past. The final products, then, will be a test of whether the Joe Exotic story will retain its power without a captive audience, or if it’ll be forever tinged by its association with a time of mass societal trauma. My hunch is that a man who once formed a same-sex throuple with two men who previously identified as straight remains interesting no matter the context, as does the world of big-cat breeders, which counts a former drug kingpin as one of its lower-key characters.

Still, a fictionalized version of Tiger King’s events won’t be emerging into the same world as its predecessor, even if we don’t know what that world will look like yet. In the meantime, TV’s bottomless need for content has led to its latest potential redundancy. The actual logistics of Peak TV have been interrupted for the foreseeable future, but the underlying conditions are still driving the hunt for entertainment with enough name recognition to break through the noise. As networks and streaming services scramble to stretch their banked series over the coming months, the machine must roll on.