The first season of Tiger King became one of the most watched and discussed shows of the pandemic. The tepid response to the uneven and sprawling second season suggests audiences may have moved on, writes Travis Johnson.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, to give the series its full, ostentatious, title, came along at exactly the right time. The Covid-19 pandemic was just kicking into high gear, the world was starting to shut down, and we, largely stuck in our homes or about to be, were ready for a deeply trashy docu-series about a gay, drug-addled exotic animal aficionado and his plot to murder his rival Carole Baskin.
The tawdry, torrid and tiger-striped tale of Joe Exotic was just the thing for the freshly quarantined: engaging but undemanding, colourful, gratuitous and disposable.
But now the world is changing, nature is healing, and it seems that season two, a fresh salvo of five episodes that is essentially a “where are they now?” afterword, is not finding the warm reception that its predecessor did. Perhaps we all feel a bit too guilty about this guilty pleasure, now that there are actually other things to do.
The reviews have been as savage as a starved mountain lion in the bed of pick-up truck, but really season two is not markedly worse than what has gone before; it’s still car crash television highlighting a gaggle of Americans grossly lacking in self-awareness and their various rivalries, set against a backdrop of guns, drugs and the shockingly bizarre and criminally negligent world of private zoo ownership.
As fans know, our “hero” Joe ended last season in the slammer, looking at 22 years for animal abuse and trying to hire a hitman. Season two’s loose organising throughline is the various attempts to get him out, including a strong bid for a Presidential pardon from outgoing Commander in Chief Donald Trump—which in retrospect doesn’t seem that crazy an idea—to a reinvestigation of the plan to off Baskin.
Around this swirl a number of different elements, particles all caught up in the hurricane that is Tiger King: a deeper look into the disappearance and possible murder of Baskin’s husband, Don Lewis; more animal cruelty from fellow zookeeper Tim Stark, who seems to have taken on board that you can never be too loud or too obnoxious for reality TV; a misguided attempt to pimp the Free Joe Exotic message at the January 6 Capitol insurrection by Joe fanboy Tim Love; and more.
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It’s all very scattershot, down to the fact that season one’s main attraction is unavoidably sidelined thanks to the American penal system—with Joe’s big moment this time around being a The Bachelor-style competition to find a new husband while in jail. Without his anchoring presence, season two sprawls unevenly. At one point it’s a true crime show, at another it’s a polemic about animal conservation (in light of the way the series revels in showing us the horrors of animal captivity, the conservation coda feels awkwardly tacked on).
But you still get a full cast of down-home grotesqueries to cheer or mock at your leisure, as well as plenty of shocking and lurid revelations, pranks, performative posturing, and everything that made season one such an eminently watchable slice of trash. It even offers up the possibility of a third season, with revelations about Joe’s case that, if true, might just be a ticket to freedom for the disgraced big cat wrangler. But that aside, it’s very much more of the same. Perhaps now we’re all in the mood for classier fare.