Documentaries rarely get a chance at damage control. Unless a film or series gets the rare chance for a followup to address concerns of the viewing public, the work usually exists on its own in all its imperfection.
Sensing both an opening and an appetite, Netflix dropped a new episode on Sunday to stoke the show’s popularity while pointing its steady flames in a slightly different direction. Using Netflix vet Joel McHale as a vehicle, this talkback session takes nearly every wrong lesson from the phenomenon built around the series and few from what made “Tiger King” worthy of attention in the first place. It gamifies a human story by adding a sarcastic, reality-show veneer onto an exercise that’s only ever insightful by accident.
Whether he did it by choice or by instruction, McHale’s approach to hosting this thing is suspect from the start. At its core, “Tiger King” revolves around the corrupting nature of money and influence, the rotting of best intentions when people feel as threatened as the animals they use for leverage. Not that this aftershow had to be a ProPublica investigation with AirPods, but seesawing back the other way entirely and using this first as a one-liner factory is such a weird tonal choice to square.
Conducted entirely over video chat, “The Tiger King and I” is a series of short conversations with memorable secondary figures in the “Tiger King” saga, notable as much for the impressions they left in the minds of viewers as they are for the parts they played in the operation (and, in some cases, eventual control) of Joe Exotic’s tiny Oklahoma wildlife fiefdom. McHale’s questions address how fairly participants felt the series portrayed them and follow up on popular lingering questions that have no doubt prompted many a Reddit deep-dive.
To the episode’s partial credit, bits of these conversations do address common concerns that viewers and critics alike have had over the handling of certain storylines within the series. But when the episode so quickly veers from a fair assessment of certain monstrous patterns of behavior to the recurring question of “Who should play you in the movie?” this feels more like glossy, calculated damage control than an extension of what the rest of the series was built on.
Maybe most notable in this “bonus” episode is who isn’t involved. Significant series figures Carole Baskin and “Doc” Antle do not pop up here. In Baskin’s case, it’s no surprise, given that that her non-participation was seemingly the green light to indulge in one of the worst parts of the post-release “Tiger King” discourse. Regardless of your interpretation of how Baskin’s backstory is presented in the doc itself (or Joe Exotic’s or Antle’s for that matter), there was a conscious effort made in the series to balance out the wild speculation that some individuals stood behind. McHale’s “wink wink” attitude towards Baskin and even some of the participants in this extra episode just seems crass at best and generally counterproductive. (Though Baskin might have the last laugh, given that her catchphrase even made it to the top of Tom Hanks’ “SNL at Home” monologue on Saturday night.)
For as much as the original series has been criticized for its representation of certain events and the relative emphasis on particular figures within the Joe Exotic web, there does seem to have been some conflation of the accused ills of the series with the way it’s been digested in the public consciousness. The original seven episodes take a story with plenty of outrageous and salacious angles, and attempt to strip away some of those layers. It’s a series that tries to square publicly available accounts and footage with the stories that the people involved have tried to craft for themselves.
That series was born from a painstaking process that took a coordinated effort of on-the-ground filming and extensive archival combing to arrive at a coherent multi-hour telling of this story. Unsurprisingly, series directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode’s names are nowhere to be found here. There’s humor in “Tiger King” that comes from people acknowledging some of their past mistakes and a few ill-informed decisions. But there’s nothing in the series anywhere close to the weirdly aggressive, shaming tone of many of the interview intros in this new episode.
An episode of “Tiger King” in name only, this sure seems like an attempt to feed the show’s popularity churn with minimal effort and preempt a fleet of search-baiting “Where Are They Now?” posts. Sensing the enthusiasm for the show likely won’t last beyond nationwide stay-at-home orders, this was the most workable solution for a quasi-FYC presentation while the iron was still hot. And it’s all delivered with a casualness that mirrors McHale’s kicked-back posture.
Any glimmer of insight from this aftershow comes when the people answering questions sideswipe the gossipy questions and the continued insistence that this is The Biggest Documentary in History and push back against the celebrity window they’re being pigeonholed into. Park staff member Erik Cowie flipping everyone off is played for laughs, but it points to the fact that no one involved with this extra episode seems to be enjoying it.
Maybe some of these conversations are further, hyper-calculated attempts to cultivate and maintain a public persona to goose some extra Cameo numbers. Or maybe this is a last-ditch attempt for a few people caught up in worldwide attention they were never courting to offer some final statement and be rid of this thing for good. Either way, it’s a lot easier to engage with that over the course of a seven-episode series than a few minutes of a catch-up chat based on the premise that anyone involved should be grateful for being meme fodder.
All episodes of “Tiger King” are now available to stream on Netflix.