clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Tiger King’ Is Back. It Never Really Went Away.

The original ‘Tiger King’ was a pandemic sensation. Twenty months later, Netflix has returned with its sequel—and everything about this universe remains just as strange and sordid as ever. 

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Let the record show that none of us were in a very good place in March 2020. Let the record also show that some of the things we did, thought, said, or liked that month were not things we necessarily would have done, thought, said, or liked in comparatively salubrious times. And finally let the record show that reflecting on those March 2020 things—the hosed-down shopping bags and hand-washing rhymes—is not altogether welcome now. Those were dark times, and not all the terrors wore spike proteins.

But, well, like Zoom and the word “jab” and, you know, that, some things are simply endemic now, and we must learn to live with them. So here we are, 20 months on from when Tiger King first swept the nation, and the series is back with a second installment.

Tiger King 2 goes ahead and says the quiet part out loud right off the bat. It is impossible to separate the first season’s megavirality from the highly unusual and unpleasant circumstances in which it appeared. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness first hit Netflix on March 20, 2020, just as stay-at-home orders began to spread across the country. The opening moments of Tiger King 2 show the corridor of a data center, where a clock counts down to midnight on March 19 as a map of early lockdown sites comes on the screen. A trove of servers winks, seemingly eager to beam the strange and sordid tale of Joe Exotic into homes across the country.

Tiger King 2 fixates on the original Tiger King phenomenon: all those Carole Baskin Halloween costumes, cable news segments, TikToks, and busted Netflix records. It’s not a sequel in the traditional sense: The near entirety of the action over five episodes explores the fallout not from what happened in the original season but from what came about when it skyrocketed to absurd, incomprehensible cultural omnipresence.

“You know, it would be nice if I could actually see me being famous out there,” Exotic—legal name: Joseph Maldonado-Passage—says in a phone call from prison, in which he also admits that he’s never actually seen Tiger King. “Everybody from the zoo is out there making money using ‘Joe Exotic’ and talking shit.”

Indeed they are, or at least they’re trying. Season 2 shows Exotic’s now-former husband, Dillon Passage, evaluating the merits of endorsing “Tiger Taint Tail Brightener” anal bleach. James Garretson—alias Jet Ski Guy—turns up running a Florida establishment called the Sausage Castle that the Orlando Sentinel onced dubbed “Disney for the Depraved.” (It has not one but two 12-foot giant skeletons standing sentry in Tiger King 2, which is quite the 2020s bingo card.) Saff Saffery, one of the original season’s breakout stars, appears after having filmed a commercial for a personal injury law firm shortly after Tiger King’s debut. Saffery, fellow former Exotic employee John Reinke, onetime Exotic campaign manager Josh Dial, and former Doc Antle apprentice Barbara Fisher are currently the stars of a touring live show called Uncaged. Antle, for his part, was indicted on felony charges relating to wildlife trafficking last October; his trial is set to begin next July.

Season 2 also provides updates on Tim Stark, who operated his own zoo in Indiana and figures heavily in the new episodes. Stark pleaded guilty to intimidation charges in June, was ordered to pay $730,000 in legal fees to PETA, and saw his zoo auctioned off in July. Jeff Lowe, who ended up with many of Exotic’s animals, was ordered to leave the former Tiger King Park in October. Between Exotic, Stark, and Lowe, Tiger King 2 informs us, some 127 big cats have been confiscated and relocated to a Colorado wildlife sanctuary.

Then there’s Baskin, who has had the most success, or at least the most post–Tiger King notoriety, after serving as the original installment’s primary foil. With her wardrobe of neon animal prints and flower headbands, Baskin made for an unusual villain, but her beef with Exotic, whose Oklahoma zoo Baskin had dedicated herself to attempting to shut down, helped her achieve that status all the same. Exotic is behind bars because he was sentenced to 22 to 27 years in prison (since reduced to a minimum of 17 and a half years) for an attempted murder-for-hire plot on her. In September 2020, Baskin went on Dancing With the Stars, from which she was ingloriously booted after three weeks. On Saturday, she debuted her Tiger King rebuttal, Carole Baskin’s Cage Fight, on Discovery+, whose emotional climax comes as she climbs into a tractor to demolish Exotic’s onetime zoo, which she acquired after a successful trademark lawsuit and sold in June for $140,000. Baskin sued Netflix—unsuccessfully—to keep Tiger King 2 off the air.

(There is, by the way, now a dedicated Joe Exotic impersonator operating in Las Vegas; he has posed for photos with both Reinke and Dial, or at any rate fairly convincing fellow impersonators thereof.)

And, of course, there’s the Tiger King Expanded Universe. In October, Kate McKinnon was snapped filming in character as Baskin for the Peacock series Joe Exotic; Baskin told TMZ that she approved of the look. The much-ballyhooed Nicolas Cage vehicle, alas, is no more: In July, it was formally shelved by Amazon. “I read two excellent scripts, which I did think were excellent, but I think Amazon ultimately felt that it was material that had become past tense because it took so long for it to come together,” Cage told Variety. “They felt at one point that it was lightning in a bottle, but that point has since faded into the distance and it’s no longer relevant.” It’s not clear if the Ryan Murphy–Rob Lowe production ever went further than Lowe’s Instagram feed.

Tiger King 2 follows Exotic’s noisy campaign to receive a presidential pardon from one Donald J. Trump. To service this cause, a team of allies, including Reinke and a Texas millionaire named Eric Love, coat a private jet in Tiger King branding and fly to our nation’s capital to seek a meeting with the former president—on, um, January 6, 2021, where we see them spreading the word on the National Mall. Tiger King 2 is quick to assert that the Free Joe gang was already driving out of town by the time the violent insurrection began. Exotic says he was shocked by the day’s events and would now like a pardon from Joe Biden instead.

The new season also delves into the original’s biggest twist: namely, the 1997 disappearance of Baskin’s former husband, Don Lewis, whom Exotic memorably—if, shall we say, without a whole lot of evidence—asserted that Baskin had fed to tigers. On this, there is not much new to offer, beyond the unfortunate modernism of the case attracting a Greek chorus of self-styled true crime investigators and Lewis’s family hiring first a headline-grabbing attorney (since fired, and later hired by Exotic to assist with his pardon attempts) and then a psychic investigator, whose brief appearance on the show consists mostly of him weeping and dry heaving.

In one segment, the film crew travels to San José, Costa Rica, in search of Lewis, interviewing luminaries billed variously as “Don’s associate,” “Don’s farmhand,” “Don’s hotel manager,” and “Don’s neighbor.” The last of these attests to her memories of “El Gringo.”

Far be it from me to tell the TKEU brain trust how to do their jobs, but the spinoff I’d like to see is the Tiger King documentary team, baffled that the first season’s virality inspired studio heads to order a dubiously necessary second chapter, landing in San José and schlepping around the jungle interviewing Lewis associates from 25 years ago about secret banana plantation landing strips, brothels, and increasingly unlikely underworld connections as internet sleuths on Facebook hector them about hidden clues implicating Baskin.

Hollywood—call me.