Back in 2016 — another lifetime ago — when Donald Trump was somehow the Republican presidential nominee and his campaign was regularly manifesting hitherto unimaginable incidents of bravura stupidity, I acquired the regrettable habit of comparing every new thing in the news cycle to a rejected George Saunders draft. I regret this comparison not because it was inaccurate, but because making it more than once suggested disbelief at how dumb and contemptuous the world seemed to have gotten, long after the state of affairs had morphed into a new normal demanding different paths of contemplation beyond “I can’t believe how dumb and contemptuous this is.”
Because while Trump may have acted as an accelerant for this cultural buffoonishness, he was also an accurate reflection of his times, too. No subject of recent cultural fascination has seemed to me as nakedly Trumpian as Tiger King, a new Netflix documentary about Joe Exotic, a gun-toting, gay, polygamist tiger enthusiast jailed for allegedly ordering a hit against a rival in the big-cat world. Exotic was a well-known oddball in Oklahoma for years, but he accrued new showmanship and boldness just as Trump was running for president. Like the once-future president, Exotic is a narcissist skilled in the practice of stirring up shit in order to collect power, and when his financial empire is threatened by his rival, a self-described animal rights activist named Carole Baskin, he heads down a very dark road that culminates in his own poorly disguised incrimination.
Tiger King is, frankly, out of control. “The first unspoilable show,” The Ringer’s Jason Concepion wrote breathlessly last week. “You actually can’t describe it enough to spoil it.” Because it only takes a little bit of time to see for yourself — there are just seven episodes, and each is around 40 minutes — I will not try. The short of it is this: Exotic and Baskin, along with another dodgy big-cat zoo owner named Doc Antle, are locked in a death embrace, fated to war with each other over which is the proper way to promote one’s love for tigers through any means possible. The first three episodes are stacked with so many narrative twists, fascinating visual details, and jaw-dropping interviews that to look away for any 10 seconds risks missing something unmissable.
It’s not that the main characters, who come off as endlessly duplicitous and outlandish, are skilled at lying — marvel at how Baskin not-so-effortlessly parries the ongoing accusations that she had a former husband killed and fed to tigers, which is not even the craziest thing that happens here. But they can’t stop lying, and so the only way to counterpoint their claims is to layer their testimony with those of more clear-headed outside sources (co-workers, investigators, victims) in order to gesture at its falseness. It turns out there’s no law against low-grade deceit, and certainly nothing mandating the deceivers to feel any shame or remorse. The show can’t help but pathologize a bit — again, this is a documentary about a gun-toting, gay, polygamist tiger enthusiast — but its primary method is to heap bullshit on top of bullshit until you can’t help but go, My God, look at these assholes, a reaction that’s helped make Tiger King a viral hit.
More and more these days we see TV and movie producers drawing inspiration from intellectual property that already exists, whether it’s a comic book or New Yorker story. In the way that certain lucky novelists could depend on their books being optioned to deliver a payday their publishers could not, the same is now true for magazine writers, podcast hosts, personal essayists, memoirists, et al who may find their projects rewarded with not only a meaty screenplay option agreement, and orders for more iterations as well. Joe Exotic was the subject of a 2019 New York story, a 2019 podcast, and now this Netflix documentary. But we are not done with him: Last fall, a deal was signed to make a fictionalized version spawned from the podcast, with Kate McKinnon signed on to play Baskin. A territory battle over who gets to play Exotic between Hollywood’s most plausibly scummy actors is ongoing.
Tiger-mania is poised to run off the rails. For one, Tiger King already watches like a mockumentary. But the dramatic arc is less compelling than its details, and the series settles somewhat when it begins to focus exclusively on Exotic’s transgressions. The story, while still wild, slowly winnows down until it becomes a fairly standard crime drama, albeit one in which a man rhapsodizes about his dead lover’s balls at their funeral. Reducing all of this to a conventional narrative in different forms isn’t impossible, but it just can’t be as vivid or as absorbing as the sprawling version, which explains Hollywood’s interest.
Documentarians don’t always sidestep the predictable inclination to leave us chewing on some thematically poignant conclusion, and thankfully Tiger King withholds the heavy hand. Partly because there isn’t much there: Though it avoids voyeurism when talking to the people whose lives were permanently altered by the main characters (often for the worst), Tiger King’s thesis doesn’t go much further than “My God, look at these assholes.” The fundamental point, hammered over and over again, is how unbelievable it is that any of this happened, which should not be a surprise to anyone paying attention to the world. That it is a surprise suggests that too many people, including myself, are still adjusting to the state of new American nonsense, which has been with us long before Trump.
One recent highlight of Vice’s documentary-style programming is Dark Side of the Ring, a limited series exploring the seedy truth behind several of pro wrestling’s most notorious and tragic sagas. Perhaps the most horrendous story in pro wrestling’s century-plus history is recounted in the two-part premiere of Dark Side of the Ring’s second season, which debuted last week to instant buzz. The premiere tells the story of Chris Benoit who, from the mid-’80s to the mid’-00s, was regarded as one of the best technical wrestlers in the world. Benoit’s seamless and dynamic mastery of the brutal choreography that constitutes a dramatic wrestling match was peerless. While he wasn’t a brilliant personality like Hulk Hogan or the Rock, which is typically how wrestlers become famous, Benoit’s performance in the ring both looked and felt real, which is no easy accomplishment in an art form where “that looks phony” is an evergreen putdown.
In 2007, when his career was presumed to be on the downswing, Benoit murdered his wife Nancy, who was also his manager, and his seven-year-old son Daniel before hanging himself. A medical autopsy revealed his brain displayed a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), likely brought on by the dozens of concussions (and hundreds of subconcussive impacts) he suffered over his career. He was also taking an unhealthy amount of steroids, and the combination of bodily traumas and personal depressions — his best friend, the wrestler Eddie Guerrero, had recently died — led him to a place where he researched how to effectively brutalize his wife, son, and himself. The resulting scrutiny of industry practices that led to his diminished health, as well as the diminished health of many other wrestlers who died prematurely, pushed World Wrestling Entertainment to adopt a stringent steroid policy. Whether out of good taste or self-preservation, they simultaneously erased Benoit’s name and record from its archives — you’ll never hear him mentioned on WWE’s official programming despite his definitional role in wrestling history.
Benoit’s many wrestling accomplishments of course pale in comparison to the fact that he brutally murdered his family and subsequently died by suicide.As his surviving friends and relatives (including David Benoit, his son from his first marriage) attest, it was completely inconceivable that the elder Benoit could commit such an act of pure evil, which is why they’ve spent the 13 years since the incident trying to grapple with it. To watch this bear out in the documentary reveals the events are still raw: Nearly all the interview subjects admit they’re still trying to work out exactly what happened, if not literally then emotionally.
Professional wrestling is an art form and business built on lying, so it isn’t very surprising to recognize wrestling personalities, even when sober and emotional, occasionally exaggerate and dramatize things. For the most part, it’s essentially harmless: One example in the show is wrestler Chris Jericho’s assertion, during a monologue about how Nancy Benoit’s achievements should be lauded, that “as a pro-wrestling manager, she created the role, she perfected the role, and then when she stopped doing it, the role basically disappeared.” This is just not true — there were many pro-wrestling managers before her, and many after — but it’s a victimless lie meant to make everyone feel better and the type of statement that goes unchallenged throughout the documentary, as the producers consistently allow the wrestlers to declare themselves moral and factual authorities.
On the one hand, this bullshitting mildly undercuts the documentary’s gravitas, as once you pick out one lie you can’t help but wonder what else is storytelling. But this conscious narrative-shaping contrasts explicitly with the unvarnished emotions of the non-wrestlers, such as David Benoit and Nancy’s sister Sandra Toffoloni, who speak with traumatized honesty. Sandra, more than most, had a firsthand view of her sister’s relationship with her murderer, and she reflects on what she could’ve done to stave off disaster with the quiet sadness of someone who’s gradually learned to forgive herself for not doing enough. It’s impossible to conceive the pain of learning your father murdered your brother and surrogate mother, and the most affecting moment is when David, upon recounting the last trip he took with his family before their death, breaks down and is unable to keep going. Their candor is such that despite the credulousness of the producers, the documentary achieves a few brief moments of “realness,” all of the crime’s titillations aside. That’s no easy thing to do when dealing with professional wrestling.
By default, Dark Side of the Ring comes off more amateurishly than Tiger King — many of its events do not exist in recorded form and are instead re-enacted by actors with accompanying voiceover. One of the most amazing things about Netflix’s documentary is how much actual footage it incorporates; there were apparently no fewer than three camera crews from various projects rolling on Joe Exotic’s property at all times over several years, along with expansive surveillance footage and plenty of homemade footage created by the documentary’s more paranoid characters, yielding a rich and detailed narrative full of things to tweet about.
Yet I found the Benoit documentary ultimately more compelling. His crimes were far more shocking and devastating than anything that happens in Tiger King, and the attempt to process the banality of what he did rather than sensationalize it yields a believable conclusion. In Tiger King, we don’t hear enough from the people whose lives were ruined by Exotic, Antle, and Baskin, and how they have managed to survive; instead we’re left with the unavoidable American truth that behaving ridiculously is the easiest way to make people keep their eyes on you.
I wanted to know more about Saff, an employee of Exotic’s who lost his arm in a tiger attack, and seemingly performed more emotional work to work through exactly what the hell happened here than all of Tiger King’s main characters combined. It’s certainly the ridiculousness that’s made Tiger King such a viral hit, while one refrain I heard around the Benoit documentary is that it’s simply too depressing to consider right now. But if reality resists all our grand theorizing, which all the evidence indicates it does, I personally find hope in the people forced to work it out nonetheless.