No mea culpa from Louis Theroux over Joe Exotic but a definite whiff of sour grapes

Anita Singh
·2-min read
Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic
Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic

Remember Tiger King? Netflix scored a monster hit last year with its stranger-than-fiction tale of zookeeper Joe Exotic, which began as a study of an eccentric big cat owner and turned into something more sinister: Exotic is currently serving 22 years in prison for ordering the murder of his nemesis, animal rights campaigner Carole Baskin. But a decade earlier, Louis Theroux made a documentary, America’s Most Dangerous Pets, in which Exotic played a starring role.

In Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic (BBC Two), he looked back at that film and examined footage from the cutting-room floor. Part of this exercise involved Theroux asking himself if he had missed the big story. In footage that never made it into the film, Exotic aired his hatred for Baskin, talked of hiring a hit man and said she could end up dead. At the time, Theroux wrote it off as just another crazy aside.

There were echoes here of his time spent making a film on Jimmy Savile. Was Theroux going to admit to journalistic failure? Not quite. Exotic was a persuasive character, the presenter explained, whose posturing was a cover for his vulnerabilities. So if this film wasn’t a mea culpa, what was it?

Theroux with Yarri and Wendy - Jack Rampling
Theroux with Yarri and Wendy - Jack Rampling

Well, it came across as a heavy critique of the Netflix show: suggesting that the producers had turned Baskin into the villain of the piece and made her the target of death threats; that they had contributed to Exotic becoming a cult hero, despite his unpleasantness; and that they had signed up Exotic and others to contracts for a proposed sequel which meant that no one but Baskin, her husband and lawyers could speak to Theroux (the producers deny any unethical behaviour). The presenter did concede that he had played a part in Exotic’s desire for fame, which came at the expense of animal welfare.

The problem for Theroux was that it was impossible to criticise Tiger King without it sounding like sour grapes, especially when he had laid the groundwork. If Theroux had been given the time to make an entire series about Exotic, it might have been great. Unfortunately, Netflix got all the glory.