ST. LOUIS — Yes. It all really happened.
One of the many bizarre aspects of the much-talked about Netflix docuseries, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness," is the fact that it constantly seems like a movie. You have to keep convincing yourself throughout the seven episodes that it really is non-fiction. Too unreal to be true, but somehow ends up being 100% real.
I got to it later than most (sorry, working on my baseball swing during the stay-at-home order), but here are five things to know as you dip your feet in the water or even after you've already left the dirty pool.
Joe Exotic is the reason to watch this series
He's just a sinister creation. A broken recipe. A cross between a young Nicolas Cage and some Coen Brothers creation who looks like he fell out of a hallucination-induced rodeo clown pipe dream, it's his actions that trigger all the stories and twisted plot threads of this true crime documentary. The owner of an exotic animal theme park in Oklahoma who bites off way too much for chewing, this guy was something else. Born Joseph Schreibvogel but after marrying a few different men, is known now as Joseph Maldonado-Passage.
Part tiger whisperer, part wicked cowboy, part twisted dream, Joe Exotic's murder-for-hire plot is what undid his empire, but there's so much to soak in here. He sings these country tunes for his website, and gives these wild news updates. He carries a six-shooter on his hip at all times, and dresses like he's ready to ride a bull, star in a remake of "Urban Cowboy," and go to a disco bar. An openly gay animal lover, Exotic is three shakes of crazy that only sometimes do you believe to be an act.
Carole Baskin is a shady character I can't trust
While Joe is painted as both the protagonist and antagonist at times throughout this series (for good reason), it's Baskin who seems to be hiding something. Her first husband, Don Lewis, went missing suddenly and you get the uncomfortable feeling watching this show that she may have orchestrated it. This is one of the only theories from Joe that seems legit. Baskin was the park owner who used to breed young tigers and engage in activities that she deems criminal practice from Exotic, but now has turned over a new leaf. She doesn't pay most of her employees at Big Cat Rescue, yet generates millions of page views on her YouTube page and website, and makes a lot of money. There's something just off about her that never quite leaves you.
Poor Travis Maldonado
Look, the kid was a drug addict and needed extreme guidance but if there's one young, misbegotten soul here, it's this kid. It's his fate that hits you the hardest during this series and one even myself didn't see coming. A young kid who comes to work for Joe, marries him, and runs into the end of innocence wall that hits so many like him. Roped into a fever dream at a young age and twisted, I'd classify Travis as an unfortunate victim. Most of what happens in this series you won't be able to believe. It's like your eyes asking for a rain check.
The real losers here are the animals
In the end, almost every human on this show is guilty of something or involved in illegal activity. The real losers are the animals: the tigers, lions, gorillas, and assorted animals held in captivity. The conservation of our wild species is the real casualty here. Baskin, Exotic, and even the very shady businessman Jeff Lowe all want to keep the animals in cages to an extent. They make money off taking these precious beasts out of their natural habitat and milking them for cash. Don't let Baskin or Lowe fool you one bit. It's a commerce game. Every human is a con; all the animals are innocent victims. That's not stopping any time soon.
There could be a Season 2
Joe Exotic in prison could make for good television and near the end of the series, there is a suspicion that the FBI are going to drop the hammer on other participants very soon. We could also just catch up with all the park workers, including the legless yet charismatic John Reinke and the loyal worker with one arm, Kelci Saffery. See how Lowe's planned reopening is going, or how bad it's burning in flames. See if Baskin's tricky smile has cracked yet, or how crazy Joe is doing in jail. I think 4-5 episodes could be produced. That's the good thing about real life: there's always more of it to film.
I can tell you this. This is unlike anything you've seen before. "Tiger King" is a bizarre and twisted take on power and corruption mixing together to make deadly concoctions that have lasting effects on different kinds of species. You won't be able to look away once you've peaked at the first episode. Clear around six hours off your schedule. Hold off on "Ozark" or go back and forth.
By the end, you may fear these exotic animal park owners more than the drug cartel.
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