The massive popularity of Netflix’s seven-part documentary miniseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has inevitably led to some backlash, from critics who’ve argued that this twisty true-crime saga plays too loose with the facts. Tiger King is an entertaining series about the outlaw lifestyles of American big-cat breeders, but the doc’s creators, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, clearly chose to emphasize their characters’ colorful eccentricity, rather than telling a meticulously researched, well-argued story about murder plots and animal abuse.
Over this past weekend, Netflix released an eighth episode of the series, called The Tiger King and I. Part epilogue and part reflection, this new Tiger King chapter offers some closure, but for the most part, it’s a wasted opportunity. It could’ve filled in some of the show’ narrative gaps and addressed some of its more controversial elements. Instead, it doubles down on the parts of the series that have drawn the most criticism: the unsubstantiated accusations of criminal behavior, and the dishy gossip about real people’s complicated lives.
It’s important to note that Goode and Chaiklin’s names don’t appear anywhere in the credits of The Tiger King and I. Netflix has slotted this special as the series’ eighth episode, which means anyone who starts binge-watching Tiger King today could easily mistake it for an official finale. But it’s labeled as an “aftershow,” and as such — like Talking Dead or Beyond Stranger Things — it’s more a commentary on the series than a continuation.
As a commentary, The Tiger King and I takes its cues from host Joel McHale, a stand-up comedian who originally rose to fame in the 2000s by making fun of the ridiculousness of reality television for E!’s The Soup. McHale doesn’t skewer Tiger King here; he’s clearly a fan. But he does approach the series as though it were something to gawk at: more like Shahs of Sunset or Keeping Up with the Kardashians than a probing documentary about a strange and borderline-criminal American subculture.
McHale conducts interviews with eight of Tiger King’s subjects. Each conversation took place remotely, due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Each has been edited down to about five minutes, and reduced mostly to the subjects’ juiciest comments about the show’s two most prominent characters (both understandably absent from this special): outspoken roadside-zoo owner Joe Exotic, and his animal-rights-activist rival, Carole Baskin.
In talking to the series’ minor players, McHale indulges in frequent good-natured teasing about the ways they were portrayed in the series. He never pushes back against anything they tell him, nor does he try to hold them accountable for some of the things they said or did in the documentary. Instead, he gives them a chance to push back, to complain about how Goode and Chaiklin presented them.
Some of the corrections are welcome. Joe Exotic’s transgender employee Kelci “Saff” Safferty addresses being misgendered throughout the miniseries. (He’s not angry.) And Joe’s formerly close associates Erik Cowie and John Finlay explain why Tiger King fans should stop thinking of them as “drugged-out hillbillies.”
But McHale is often deferential to a fault. He seems to think Jeff and Lauren Lowe’s swinger lifestyle is hilarious, and he’s willing to let the Lowes and others trash Baskin, suggesting (with only circumstantial evidence) that she’s responsible for the death of her second husband.
McHale also lets Joe Exotic’s fiercely libertarian political advisor Joshua Dial deliver a short anti-government rant, and lets the veteran tabloid TV reporter Rick Kirkham assert that Joe was actually terrified of tigers — all without any follow-up questions to put these comments into context. Similarly, when Cowie refers to “the absurdly crass things” Joe Exotic would say, McHale doesn’t take the chance to pursue the idea any further, even though one of the criticisms leveled at Tiger King is that Chaiklin and Goode — by their own admission — purposefully excluded incidents of Joe’s racism.
It might’ve been more revelatory to let some of these people argue with each other about their perceptions of the truth, rather than venting to McHale. At the very least, it’s unconscionable not to have Goode and Chaiklin in the mix, answering for the ways they told this story.
Because for all its faults, Tiger King is definitely defensible. It’s a highly watchable docu-series, with insights into the grandiose delusions of self-made celebrities in the internet age. The Tiger King and I, on the other hand, lets some of the doc’s subjects keep soaking up attention while criticizing Goode and Chaiklin, without any reasoned objections from McHale or anyone else.
Frankly, this is a bum move by Netflix, to make its new “last episode” of Tiger King into a 40-minute round of self-aggrandizement and unchecked debunking. Rather than honestly answering the nay-sayers’ genuine questions and concerns, the series now ends with a shrug and a smirk — and by letting the bit players redefine the story, without any of the accountability a documentary needs.