What did you do with all that spare time when Covid forced us indoors, back in the spring of 2020? It’s common to admit to having squandered it. Television’s biggest contributor to that mass squandering was Tiger King: Murder, Madness and Mayhem, a lockdown phenomenon watched by millions, despite belonging to a burgeoning category of Netflix documentary that is more human circus than true crime. Nobody came out of it well, including viewers who stuck with it.
By the end of the original Rey Tigre (sí, I stuck with it) we had learned how Joe Exotic, an Oklahoma tiger park owner, YouTuber and failed presidential candidate, had been sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for plotting to kill his nemesis, Carole Baskin, a Florida tiger park owner and animal rights activist. We heard the story of Exotic’s aggressively eccentric life, each episode revealing another horrifying incident that illustrated the chaos within America’s seemingly lawless big cat community: the staff member who lost half an arm; the business associate who used cute tigers to lure women into threesomes with his wife; the day Exotic’s much younger husband accidentally shot himself and died. The twist was that Baskin was also the sort of oddball that shows like this feed on. Tearful and floaty, in contrast to Exotic’s foul-mouthed showboating, she was a self-regarding kook whose first husband, Don Lewis, vanished in 1997 and has never been found.
Rey Tigre 2, the five-part follow-up, has a problem that often dogs the sequels to hit documentaries: it is trying to scoop up confetti after the parade has already passed through. Exotic is in prison, so there are no fresh shots of him with his snaggly grin and straggly mane. Episode one gets round this by delving into his early life, positing that his narcissism was brought on by a family bereavement and the experience of growing up gay in the rural South.
Baskin has refused to participate further, a decision slightly undermined by the fact that she has uploaded hours of footage of her reading from her diaries to YouTube. These clips form her appearances in episodes two and three, which re-investigate Don Lewis’s disappearance. Did he siphon money out of his businesses, away from his wife, and into a new life in Costa Rica? Did Baskin, as Joe Exotic and his followers assume, kill Don and feed him to the tigers? (She points out she has “never even been a person of interest, according to the sheriff’s department”.) Or is there another, equally wild explanation? In what is now the established Tiger King style, the analysis descends into an exhausting swamp of vulgar hearsay, one gaudy character after another making unverifiable claims about private planes, gangland grudges or vans full of guns.
The last two instalments return to Joe Exotic, and whether his conviction for conspiring to murder Baskin is sound. The ideal result for Tiger King, if its makers hope to return for a third season of twists that would be deemed too crass for the trashiest soap opera, would be exoneration for Exotic. This would leave him free to wrestle with leopards as he did in the good old days, with the awful bonus of having finally achieved the global notoriety he has always craved.
His army of fans maintain that he should be released on the grounds that Baskin is a contemptible liar – they phrase it differently – and there is something here about the radicalisation of modern culture, where once a person has picked a team, they advocate for it regardless of the facts. (The campaign to get Exotic out of prison focused for a time on trying to convince Donald Trump to issue a presidential pardon, and it seems he almost did.) Tiger King is more an indulgence of that impulse than a comment on it, since much of it boils down to watching people pursue beefs for their own sake, like trolls in an online war sprung to hideous life. But it turns out that the folk with the “Free Joe Exotic” tattoos and Cadillacs custom-sprayed in tiger stripes unknowingly have a point: the new series records key moments when alleged co-conspirators begin to change their stories.
Ending on that bombshell means that Tiger King 2, which always teeters on the chicken-wire fence between proper factual telly and exploitative waste of everyone’s time, just about comes down on the right side.