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Tiger King 2 review: An icky didn’t-we-do-well lap of honour for Netflix

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With a bit of perspective, we can see what ought to have been clear all along. Tiger King was a tawdry little episode in TV history, a moment of collective hysteria when millions of viewers – 64 million in four weeks, if we believe Netflix’s reports – tuned in to rubberneck a gruesome car crash of working-class Americana. The tale of Joe Exotic, real name Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, an eccentric country musician-turned-tiger park owner, and his war with the animal rights activist Carole Baskin, was a three-way hybrid of true-crime documentary, circus freak show and Attenborough. With the world locking down, it was the right series at the right time. If the pandemic created the viewing conditions, Netflix provided the opportunity.

Eighteen months later, everyone should know better, but here we are again, with Tiger King 2. Joe Exotic might be behind bars, serving 22 years for tiger-related crimes and (mostly) for attempting to get Baskin murdered, but that hasn’t stopped the Tiger Kingdom. His quasi-martyrdom has only increased his notoriety. The soap opera has only grown less edifying since last March.

The first episode is a hotchpotch that revisits the fallout from the first series, before attempting to provide some more context to Exotic’s life. There’s the tough childhood in Texas, then the first career as a policeman, where he was persecuted for being a gay cowboy. But then the story hops forward again to last year. With Trump in charge, Exotic’s supporters sensed the opportunity to appeal for a presidential pardon. It was just the kind of wacky thing he might do. They hired a battle bus, limos, a tiger-liveried private plane. As Trump egged on his supporters to reject the 2020 election result, Exotic’s supporters were right there. The series seems keen to imply that Exotic and co were more than a sideshow, somehow involved in subverting democracy.

Whatever else you might say about the first Tiger King, it was an extraordinary yarn, and the directors and producers spent many years polishing a peerless piece of sensationalism. For all its new interviews and revelations and scratchy audio from Joe in prison, the second outing has none of that depth. At times, it feels like a self-congratulatory cuttings show, a didn’t-we-do-well lap of honour for Netflix and its battalions of attention span engineers. Somehow, they stretch it to five episodes, going over the death of Carole’s second husband, Don Lewis, whom Joe and his crew suspect was murdered by Baskin, and looking at what Jeff Lowe, who took over the park after Joe’s imprisonment, has done with the business. It’s all icky.

In a saner entertainment market, that would be an end to it all. I wouldn’t bet on it. If the real victims of Tiger King are the blameless animals, the hero is money. People are driven to wild acts by lust for it, and lack of it. There are the people paying money for a tiger experience, the people making money selling the experience, the damaged people forced into working for this eccentric ringleader. Everyone’s on the grift: Joe, his husband Dillon Passage, Joe’s former employees and enemies, Netflix, sundry lawyers and hangers on. Baskin and her husband, Howard, predictably refused to cooperate with the new programmes. She is reportedly suing Netflix. When the pot’s this big, everyone has an angle. Sitting at home, watching, we’re not much better.

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