Tiger King: When Entertainment Wins Over Truth

Every factual documentary has an agenda. It’s a sometimes-unfortunate truth that every single series or film comes complete with a biased lens, and I say "sometimes" because it isn’t always a bad thing. Every narrative has to be told from a certain standpoint. There are countless documentaries out there, particularly true crime, that use their position to bring some truly terrible issues to light, and focus their agenda on justice. They’re based on facts, they’re well-rounded, and they do not place entertainment value above the truth. That’s the point of a documentary, and many would agree with me on that.

So, when Tiger King arrived on Netflix, selling itself as a documentary, I was hopeful that some real issues would be touched upon. Real issues, like the gargantuan issue of big cat breeding in the States, and how we can begin to tame it. I’d never heard of Joe Exotic before, and from the many memes and hashtags that were trending on Twitter - #freejoeexotic being one of the most popular – I figured he’d turn out to be the underdog, the lovable hero of the story. Boy, was I wrong.

It’s no secret that Joe is a terrible person. He owned and operated a roadside zoo, kept his animals in less-than-stellar conditions, paid his employees an awful wage of $150 a week and manipulated a number of vulnerable men into marrying him. He threatened Carole Baskin’s life on the daily and even paid a guy to actually off her. Oh, and he didn’t provide sanctuary to exotic animals – he bred them, ripped the newborn cubs from their mothers, and charged hordes of people to take selfies with them. This is all made clear on the show. So why on Earth do people like Joe Exotic?

The answer is relatively simple. When we read books, watch films, or binge shows, we look for a hero to zero in on. In any story, we look for someone we can empathise with and join on the journey, someone we can root for. In The Keepers, it’s Abbie and Gemma. In The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, it’s Jon Hatami. In Tiger King, it’s Joe Exotic. He becomes the hero because he’s the first person we meet, and because, intentionally, we’re shown the good about him before we’re shown the bad. And at first, he seems relatable – after all, he came from nothing, and he seems to love the animals. He’s what some might call ‘the salt of the Earth’. Not only that, but he's a gun-toting, gay polygamist with a mullet - the sheer madness of it is somehow endearing to the audience, and we root for him almost instantaneously.

Again, every documentary has an agenda, and every single one of them deals in entertainment. They have to entertain us, or we wouldn’t watch them, as shallow as we are. But there’s a major and important difference between being entertaining, and making entertainment the prime objective. The makers of Tiger King know better than anyone how terrible Joe Exotic is. They’re the ones who spent actual time with him, at his zoo, and captured, on camera, all of his awful exploits (including the stuff we didn’t get to see). But they’re also the ones who hold Joe up as the hero.

The reason for that is entertainment, plain and simple. Joe is, undoubtedly, a criminal and a bigot, but he’s also entertaining and that not only gets people watching, it keeps them watching. The makers of Tiger King know that. It’s why they let the issue of big cat breeding, and more broadly, exotic animal abuse, slide in favour of completely irrelevant speculation spouted by Joe, like whether or not Carole Baskin really killed her husband two decades ago. It’s why they force the perspective so we end up thinking of Joe as an underdog who tries his best, and rooting for him as such. Simply put, they know what works. If it’s a toss-up between a closer look at the harrowing animal abuse, or showing Joe shooting some dynamite, I think we can all say what’s more entertaining.

Then, of course, there’s Carole Baskin. Just as we need a hero to root for, we need a villain to struggle against. The show presents Carole to us only after we’re forced to listen to Joe ranting and raving about everything she’s done to him. From the get-go, we’re doomed to not only distrust her, but actively dislike her, despite the fact that she’s perhaps the sanest person on the entire show. She’s certainly the only one who runs a GFS-accredited sanctuary. And yes, she doesn’t pay her volunteers because, well…they’re volunteers.

The disappearance of her ex-husband, Don Lewis, isn’t particularly something I want to get into too deeply here because it deserves its own article. Suffice it to say that there’s precisely zero evidence Carole had anything to do with his disappearance. Again, the idea that she did is juicy, and draws people in. It’s likely that without that separate storyline, Tiger King wouldn’t have received half as much attention as it did. You only need to glance at the hashtags on Twitter to know that many people swallowed the narrative that Tiger King was offering because they’re still perpetuating it. Not even Doc Antle – not just a creepy guy, but also the ringleader of what appears to be a sex cult – gets the same kind of treatment that Carole suffers from on social media.

With that, Tiger King seems to have it all – a downtrodden, entertaining frontman, the uppity villain, an unsolved disappearance and a murder-for-hire plot all rolled into a single seven-part series. Of course people were going to watch it and talk about it. That’s the point of entertainment. It had one job to do – to keep people coming back – and it did that. But what it delivered in entertainment, it all but ignored in facts.

The main issue with Tiger King is that it presents itself as something it’s not. It masquerades itself behind the guise of documenting true events but twists the narrative in the name of entertainment. Not only that, but it does nothing substantial with itself. There is no fight against big cat breeding – other than the one Carole’s fighting – and no desire to spread any semblance of truth. If Tiger King was interested in the truth, Carole Baskin would not be such a hated figure, and Joe Exotic would be vilified rather than revered. But that wouldn’t be half as entertaining.

There’s something sinister about a show that is cut from the same cloth as a reality show posing as a documentary. There’s something even more sinister about the fact that people simply accept things for whatever they’re said to be. Tiger King is no more a documentary than Jersey Shore. It tells us nothing new, only presents us with carefully modified portions of the story, and does nothing to try and solve any of the issues they bring up. It’s viewing for viewing’s sake, observing a group of people as they struggle against each other, laughing as the time-bomb ticks down.

To go back to what I wrote earlier, all documentaries, even the well-rounded ones, have to choose how they tell their story. Every narrative has to be told from a certain standpoint, whether it’s based on facts or entertainment. But in documentaries, entertainment should never preclude the facts, should never get in the way of showing events as truthfully as possible while striving to remain as objective as possible. That’s the point of documentaries – they document the truth in order to bring an issue to light. If we consider Tiger King a documentary, then we may as well throw Keeping Up with the Kardashians in there, too. After all, where do we draw the line?

That’s the real question, and it’s not one with a simple answer, either. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that all shows calling themselves documentaries simply want the truth, that all of them are created equal. But they’re not. While film-makers shouldn’t be as eager to deceive us as they are, we, as the audience, shouldn’t be as eager to buy what they’re peddling.

Tiger King is not rooted in facts, but entertainment, and that’s the difference. It’s a reality show, at best, with a villain for a hero. It’s not on a search for truth, or justice. It’s not about morality. It's about entertainment.

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