Tiger King

I’m not sure if I should be ashamed to admit that I embraced national lockdown solidarity (read: succumbed to groupthink) and binge-watched Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness on Netflix. After hearing about it repeatedly on everything from John Krasinski’s Some Good News to friends on Instagram to Seth Meyers, I watched the trailer with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. It looked sensational, disturbing—and, yes, intriguing. And it was about cats, big cats, so what wasn’t to love?

While trailers don’t always accurately represent what the show is actually like, Tiger King is indeed sensational, disturbing, and intriguing. The cast of characters is often unbelievable, so wholly removed from anyone or anything I interact with on a daily basis, the turn of events are often shocking (Did he really just run for governor of Oklahoma?!), and the real-life fallout of the events covered is troubling. The show left me with a strong storytelling hangover: I wanted to know what happened next, to continue following the characters—but I also felt sad and disaffected, and I didn’t actually do any follow-up research online.

Having seen Tiger King, I think I understand why it’s so bingeable, and not simply because it released at a time when everyone was stuck at home due to COVID-19. Tiger King is that rare combination of trashy reality television mixed with hard-hitting documentary. It uses the traditional techniques of blockbuster fictional storytelling (snappy pacing, deep characterization, cliffhanging plotting) while also engaging in the broadly appealing, broadly applicable reality of nonfiction. As a show, it engages us, entertains us, horrifies us, enrages us, and educates us—all at the same time.

What stood out to me most about the storytelling in Tiger King was the impressive pacing. The overall structure is brilliant, withholding key information from viewers early on (everything from divorces to suicide to buy-outs to life-altering accidents) and carefully revealing them to flesh out a full picture of the characters, their motivations, and their actions. Deft foreshadowing cues viewers into important facts: for instance, in the first episode a one-armed person is interviewed, but how she lost her arm in a significant event isn’t shown until later. The flow of information is by no means slow, however, as viewers are continually thrown unexpected twists and baffling exchanges, the characters and events only getting stranger and more surprising as the episodes progress.

The characterization is also engrossing, the filmmakers finding just the right clips and pieces of dialogue to showcase the huge personalities on display. From the physical “descriptions” of the characters—their clothes, hairstyles, tattoos, and mannerisms—to their unique ways of speaking and interviewing, the viewers get a close, deep look at the characters. The filmmakers occasionally appear in the show, documenting the events at what appears to be real danger to themselves (for instance, multiple people point loaded guns at the camera at different times), so I’m guessing the filmmakers themselves got a close, deep look at the people they filmed.

On this side of binging Tiger King, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the show to others, but it certainly was a fascinating trip into storytelling, documentary filmmaking, and the illegal big cat industry in America.

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