Netflix has yet another blockbuster on its hands — or at least whatever the streaming equivalent of one is. It’s the incredible story of Joe Exotic and the strange world of amateur tiger zoos in the United States. Both Joe and these zoos are given a full examination in this remarkable series that’s become an overnight hit. It has crazy people, extraordinary accounts, business deals gone wrong, a failed run at president and governer, and even an alleged murder for hire subplot. It sounds like the premise of outlandish fiction but, amazingly, it’s all true.

If the phrase ‘binge-watch’ were never to pop up before, it surely would have been invented now to describe the pull of Netflix’s latest documentary series, “Tiger King.” Consisting of seven episodes about 50 minutes each, resulting in roughly five and a half hours of content to watch what is, at its core, a genre typical movie watchers tend to not gravitate toward.

And yet, “Tiger King” is now one of the most popular titles streaming on Netflix, despite merely being a documentary. It gets around the typically straightforward narrative of most true account documentaries thanks to a happy accident by the filmmaker. Director Eric Goode began the project as a study behind what drives people to collect endangered wild animals, such as venomous snakes and snow leopards. In his journey, he stumbled down the rabbit hole of “big cat collectors” — or people who own private zoos of tigers, lions, and the like.

This rabbit hole led him to the fascinating character that is the titular Tiger King, the polygamous animal wrangler and country singer, Joe Exotic. Native to Oklahoma and flamboyantly homosexual, Joe is immediately distinctive upon the first greeting. Aged 55 or so, he’s never seen without his dyed blonde mullet, enormous brown horseshoe mustache, and leopard print shirt, speaking in a high trebled southern twang and perpetually at the ready for self-promotion.

Always in love with big cats, Joe opened a private zoo in 1997 to give shelter for several endangered species found mostly in jungles or on other continents. Since then, he’s fought numerous institutions, such as the Humane Society, the United States Department of Agriculture, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against allegations of animal abuse.

But no one drew as much ire from Joe as Carole Baskin, CEO of the non-profit “Big Cat Rescue.” The two unofficially feuded for years, trading insults over who was actually treating their animals better. The rivalry then takes an unexpected escalation, but it’s so extraordinary, fascinating, and complicated that it hooks and pulls streamers in to find out what happens.

That’s the strength of “Tiger King” that gives it a leg up on other documentaries or true crime stories. The characters that pop up and the circumstances that draw them together are so bizarre, outlandish, and strange that it’s the sort of thing you’d never take seriously as a fictional story. Except it really happened.

That is if we are to believe the words of those interviewed. What gives the series an extra layer of complexity is the deep-end eccentricity of every person questioned. The bulk of the interview subjects are hillbilly-folk with missing teeth, tasteless tattoos, and no understanding of classy behavior. 

It’s apparent that Joe is legitimately concerned about the well being of his tigers, yet he feeds them expired meat from Walmart. Baskin’s rescue operation seems well-intentioned on the outside. But the slightest bit of digging reveals the animals aren’t as well treated as she would have her fans believe. While this plot makes it easy to be sympathetic to either, it also remains extremely subjective as to who is the most believable. The most straightforward conclusion is that they’re all duplicitous in some way, and this is a part that makes watching them so entertaining.

Gripping from beginning to end and continuously surprising, “Tiger King” is an early front runner for the best documentary feature of the year. With twists in the narrative that you’d never expect and a clever editing style that slowly doles out information to the audience, it feels like the film equivalent of a true-crime page-turning novel. Once you start it, you can’t put it down until it’s over.

Title: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness

Star Rating: Four and a half stars

Good:

  • Has a story so outlandish and yet true that keeps you watching.
  • Makes a subject so odd like the underground world of big cat collecting interesting.
  • Every character in the story is compelling.

Bad:

  • Five and a half hours long, so if you’re not into binge-watching it will take a while to finish.
  • Some episodes are less interesting than others.
  • Takes a somewhat biased perspective on its subjects.
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