Why the tigers and not the ‘King’ are the real stars of the Netflix hit docuseries
With its eclectic group of characters, its multiple meme-able moments, and its consistent escalation in dramatic stakes, it’s no surprise that the Netflix documentary Tiger King has proven to be a global hit for the streaming giant. Joe Exotic, the would-be ‘Tiger King’, has craved fame for years, and now this docuseries has given him global infamy.
If you have managed to avoid spoilers thus far, then well done. Without delving into the often-ridiculous stories of Tiger King, it is no spoiler to say that Exotic was not a suitable carer for the big cats in his zoo. In fact, it very quickly becomes apparent that this is someone who doesn’t deserve to have the welfare of these magnificent animals in his hands. This is a man who frequently treated tigers with extreme and gratuitous violence, who kept them in grim conditions, and who exploited them for his own profit.
The stories in Tiger King defy belief, with the series at times evoking comparisons with true crime documentaries. What sets Tiger King apart are the animals. The show reinforces humanity’s love affair with the tiger, which has captured the imagination of animal lovers for centuries.
It is difficult to imagine the series enjoying the same level of global fame if the titular animal was anything other than the tiger. Badger King? Spider King? Goat King? Fine, most of us probably would tune in to Badger King out of curiosity. But the grace and power of a tiger, plus the resemblance to household cats, makes this animal particularly resonant with audiences.
The makers of Tiger King join a long list of creatives that have used the tigers at the forefront of their work. Here’s a brief look at a few of those…
Joe Exotic’s ‘music’ career produces some memorable scenes in Tiger King, but these big cats have influenced more esteemed artists too. Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ features one of rock’s most iconic riffs, with the titular phrase paying tribute to the tiger’s power and focus. Rosanne Cash (‘Dance with the Tiger’), ABBA (‘Tiger’), and They Might Be Giants (‘The Lady and the Tiger’) have all paid musical tribute to the tiger in their own way.
International Game Technology (IGT) has placed tigers at the center of multiple online slots. IGT is one of the very best providers in the business, with the big cat focus of releases like Siberian Storm and Cats helping them to stand out among thousands of other slots. DreamWorks Interactive produced T’ai Fu: Wrath of the Tiger for PlayStation in 1999, an action game that featured some of Michael Giacchino’s earliest work as a composer. In a world populated by animal clans, it is T’ai Fu the tiger that is chosen as the protagonist.
Shere Khan in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Tigger in A. A. Milne’s collection of Winnie the Pooh tales are two examples of tigers in literary worlds of anthropomorphized animals. When most of the characters are animals, it’s not surprising that tigers make the cut. More significant is the presence of Richard Parker in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and the titular animal in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea, with these authors specifically choosing a tiger to interact with their human characters.
Even when tigers are used as antagonists in popular media, such as Shere Khan, it is done so with emphasis on the key characteristics of the animal: their strength, their poise, and their intelligence. Some of the humans in Tiger King never appreciate these virtues, which is why it can be a tough watch at times.
Watching these humans spar and scheme is fascinating; you’d struggle to come up with a more engaging narrative if you’d employed an Oscar-winning scriptwriter. However, the legacy of the series shouldn’t be the making of a star in Joe Exotic. As Rick Kirkham, a TV producer who worked with Exotic, declared in a Netflix Q&A special, “the one thing that I think that can come out of this docuseries that is good: people are now going ‘free the animals’.” This is why tigers are the heart of the Netflix series.