Late last week, Netflix announced—via a video of comedian Joel McHale draped in a leopard blanket and wearing a cowboy hat—that its Tiger King aftershow episode would air this weekend. The 40-minute-long bonus episode, "The Tiger King and I," hit the streaming service yesterday, and though it's hard to top a show that packed assassination allegations, a cowboy throuple, and a potential sex cult from an India fetishist into just its first three episodes, "The Tiger King and I" was an unnecessary disappointment to an otherwise enticing docuseries.
One of the biggest talking points of the pandemic so far, Netflix's Tiger King docuseries tells the story of the gonzo characters in America's wild animal trade, mostly through the narrative of Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage and his business partners and nemeses. The Oklahoma zookeeper-turned-presidential candidate is currently serving 22 years in prison for killing tigers and for a murder-for-hire plot involving Carole Baskin, his primary rival in the big cat world. The original seven episodes are like a dark circus sideshow of mullets and camo, animal abuse, cultish manipulation, American poverty, and an off-the-rails obsession with leopard print. But the stories are real, and as we ogle the ample and damning footage, we can at least pretend that the trash TV we can't look away from is a work of "documentary." (Tiger King is not without its problems, and its use of the word "documentary" is disputed.)
As director Eric Goode told the New York Times earlier this month, he spent five years filming the series and ultimately decided that it "deserved" a seven-episode treatment. It's telling, however, that Goode is not credited in the follow-up episode. Hosted by Joel McHale and filmed via video interviews during the pandemic, "The Tiger King and I" scraps the facade of "documentary" for something more like a bad reality TV reunion episode.
Nobody is actually reuniting, though, since they're each talking to McHale in individual interviews, and Tiger King's biggest stars like Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and Doc Antle are all pointedly missing (Baskin is very unhappy with the series). Instead, McHale speaks to Tiger King's peripheral figures: current G.W. Zoo owners Lauren and Jeff Lowe; head zookeeper Erik Cowie; former zoo manager John Reinke; former zookeeper Saff Saffery; Exotic's ex-campaign manager, Joshua Dial; Exotic's ex-husband John Finlay; and former producer of Joe Exotic TV Rick Kirkham. The follow-up most of us probably want from a docuseries like Tiger King would involve incisive interviews about things like where Jeff Lowe's money comes from, what it was like being married to Exotic, or even anything more about the horrific Walmart meat truck. Instead of bringing anything new to light, McHale treats the docuseries and its participants more like a bleak episode of The Soup in which he makes jokes and quips instead of taking the interviews seriously when there are heavy allegations at hand.
The resulting episode makes headlines like the Washington Post's, which claims the episode has "new and disturbing details," feel like a bit of an oversell. The main thing we learn from the episode is that McHale is an ill-equipped interviewer who can't read the room as to when humor is appropriate, and the few new pieces of information we do receive regarding animal abuse at the facilities aren't meaningfully explained or questioned.
Given the actions of Exotic, Baskin, and Antle, it's easy to argue that the side characters of Tiger King are the most sympathetic people in the show. Save for Lauren and Jeff Lowe, who take up Exotic's problematic mantle, and Kirkham, who sees the potential for content in every element of Exotic's absurd life, everyone else involved in "The Tiger King and I" was swept up into bad systems. Cowie, Dial, Reinke, Saffery were foisted into Exotic's dramatic world because they needed jobs; the implication is that Finlay was manipulated into staying in a relationship with Exotic as long as he did.
McHale's line of "interviewing" jabs at Tiger King's most vulnerable people under the guise of being chummy. After asking Saffery about being misgendered in the initial series, for example, McHale asks about the tiger attack that resulted in his arm being amputated, and then makes a quip about the tiger looking at his other arm and "licking his chops." And when McHale talks with Reinke, it feels like he's blowing smoke up his ass as he comments that Reinke's old pants must be very valuable now, presumably due to his slight bit of Netflix fame (which, we all know, is quickly fleeting). Overall, it reads like McHale is puffing these people up just so Netflix can continue using their lives for content.
Though many of us have enjoyed the spectacle of Tiger King, we should acknowledge that the jokes and the commentary surrounding it punch downward at people who already live on the frays of American society. That's what McHale doesn't grapple with very well: The opportunity to speak with the Tiger King cast seems more like a chance to ridicule them for an audience that can poke fun at their misfortune. The resulting episode doesn't feel sincere, and it only adds to the series' icky sense of exploitation.
We're all desperate to watch things while we're stuck inside, but just like Goode's initial vision, Tiger King is best at seven episodes.