The true crime series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has been a ratings juggernaut for Netflix, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic keeping millions of people at home with nothing else to do. But the show would likely have been a hit regardless, thanks to its cast of colorful subjects and the innumerable attention-grabbing twists and turns in its story. It was perfectly pitched to the modern landscape of social-media-infused entertainment, arriving on the scene with a ready-made set of memeable people, images, and scenes. But while Tiger King‘s characters are indelible, its presentation leaves much to be desired. And it’s far from alone in that regard within the true crime genre.
Tiger King investigates the insular, little-known community of exotic animal collectors in America. Such people maintain small private zoos, with big cats (tigers, lions, etc.) being special draws for paying visitors. The title character is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic,” who owned one such zoo in Oklahoma. Locally infamous for his eccentric advertising and online videos, maintaining a polygamous marriage with two much younger straight men, and unsuccessfully running for both governor of Oklahoma and president of the United States, he was sentenced to prison in 2019 over multiple counts of animal abuse and putting out a hit on another zoo owner. To give you some idea of how many layers of strange turns there are to this story, Joe Exotic’s nemesis, Florida big cat “rescue” advocate Carole Baskin, is herself suspected by some of having murdered her missing husband. And then there’s the zookeeper whose arm was torn off, the couple who used tiger cubs to facilitate orgies in Las Vegas, and the guy who’s used his animal park to set up his own miniature sex cult.
The show’s popularity has naturally spurred various think pieces, particularly in regards to its perceived exploitation of its subjects. Such ethical concerns are valid, both as they pertain to this show specifically and to the wider field of documentary. Less discussed is the actual quality of the show, which isn’t surprising but still disappointing. Questions of content almost always supersede questions of form in discourse around documentaries, likely due to a utilitarian view of them as simple sources of information rather than art. People have low standards for nonfiction filmmaking. While documentary is home to some of the most exciting creativity in cinema today, the flip side is that the baseline standard for what audiences will generally accept as “competent” is arguably even lower than the bar they set for mainstream film, or even television.
Despite its boom in popularity over the past decade, true crime has experienced little formal innovation; if anything, the films and shows within the genre have entrenched themselves more deeply in cliche than other docs have. One seemingly must kick things off with an ominous montage of interviewees obliquely hinting at some horrible event, turning partial soundbites into an advertising preview for the show or film the audience has already chosen to watch. Every single show seems to have been scored with the same spooky cellos or aggressive guitars. And if you haven’t put together an opening credit sequence with mournful music over photographs of an ironically smiling murder victim, have you even done your job right?
The variety of colorful characters and situations is one of the show’s draws, but it also has no idea how to handle them. While adhering roughly to a timeline of Joe Exotic’s work within the tiger trade, the show frequently loses focus on whatever idea it’s pursuing, drifting into tangents and letting important questions go not just unanswered but sometimes unasked. (While a substantial portion of the plot revolves around different zookeepers accusing one another of abusing their animals or maintaining substandard conditions for them, the show never takes the time to establish precisely what a baseline of proper care for the animals looks like.) Half the episodes have a clear focus, while the other half don’t so much have a structure as they simply pick up where their predecessors left off and then keep going until the requisite 45 minutes have passed, whereupon they don’t so much properly end as they simply stop. It’s some of the worst symptoms of shows made to be binged rather than being properly built for serialized storytelling.
Such sloppiness pervades this genre. The first season of Serial, the podcast which kicked off the contemporary true crime boom, is made almost entirely of “But what about this?” tangents. That series at least had the excuse of being structured around poking holes in the specifics of one case. Less excusable is Making a Murderer, another major touchstone in the current movement, which goes completely slack in its last few episodes, seemingly having no idea how to make the trial for its characters compelling, relying on the audience’s outrage to carry them through. The Jinx made some edits to its material that verge on needlessly deceptive, all in the name of greater shock value. It’s not clear why some of these shows, such as The Keepers or Evil Genius, are even miniseries at all rather than movies; one could learn nearly everything they have to say about their respective crimes simply by reading the Wikipedia pages about them, which would take much less time. (Bluntly, the answer lies in a complex tangle of creative and financial incentives driving the larger rise of the miniseries as a format.)
All these shows are chasing the shadow of Errol Morris, who made one of the definitive true crime films with 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, which pioneered the use of reenactment in documentary. In that film and in many of his others, Morris seeks to make visceral for the audience how conflicting ideas of the truth rub up against one another. The use of reenactment is crucial to this, illustrating the irreconcilable nature of differing accounts of the film’s central crime (as well as how unlikely some of the stories are). In examining different facets of his stories, Morris paradoxically makes more sense out of chaos by drawing out the relevant connections. In contrast, contemporary true crime filmmakers seem to think that simply by chasing every interesting thread, they can weave something intriguing. And they can … up to a point. But intriguing does not automatically equal a good and worthwhile work.
Despite my misgivings, I watched all of Tiger King. No matter how messy the show is, it’s impossible to deny the power of the story’s riveting developments, or how magnetic the cast is. Finding such incredible people is ideally the foundation of great documentary. But too often, filmmakers use the unique stories and characters they find as a crutch, trusting them to carry things along. And the worst part is that they may be right in thinking they can coast and get away with it. Because, well, they can. Obviously it paid off for Tiger King, and also for Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Don’t F**k With Cats, and any number of other true crime shows that became brief and lucrative social media sensations. We live in a time in which true stories are now IP, just like book club favorites or “cinematic universes.” Joe Exotic was already a minor meme on his own before this miniseries; of course that online popularity could easily translate into making his story into a cross-platform hit. Within this industry framework, a “crazy” crime or series of events (that is, something with enough attention-grabbing elements to it, especially anything Reddit sleuths or Twitter jokers can latch onto) can become its own draw, with consideration of its construction a distant forethought.
Netflix has attempted to keep riding the Tiger King gravy train with a “new episode” that was nothing but a slapdash “Where are they now?” special constructed awkwardly within video chat. There’s widespread chatter about a fictional adaptation of the series, but buzz will likely just dwindle for now, until whatever new eyebrow-raising show comes along to replace it in the discourse. This is why, despite the fact that shows such as this are arguably helping to make mainstream documentaries more popular than at any point in history, such exposure won’t necessarily trickle down to aid better works or artists. It will just encourage more thoughtless filmmaking. This genre is but one cog in the greater churning machine of content. Quality matters little to it.