The Alternate Aesthetic Realities of ‘Tiger King’

The Alternate Aesthetic Realities of ‘Tiger King’

That is useful when you are building your own reality. These animal preserves — whether Exotic’s zoo in Oklahoma, or Baskin’s rescue facility in Florida, or Antle’s compound in South Carolina — are stand-alone ecosystems, or try to be. (Exotic’s animals, and his employees, rely on regular deliveries of just-expired meat from Walmart for feeding time.)

Even the people on the show aren’t totally certain where Exotic’s reality ends and theirs begins: In one scene, a tiger grabs hold of his leg and begins to drag him around its cage. But the co-workers who are filming Exotic don’t step in, or even seem to sense that things are amiss — maybe in his reality, that’s normal? — until Exotic pulls out a gun and fires a couple of warning shots.

Such disruption is rare, because rarely does Exotic break character. At one point, he invokes the Waco disaster in discussing what might happen if local authorities interfered with his zoo. He has built a world to his taste, on his terms, and he can’t fathom any intrusion into his reality.

In essence, “Tiger King” is a legal saga: Exotic is in jail, having been convicted of a plot (unsuccessful) to murder Baskin, whom he long had quarreled with. But so much of the back-and-forth takes place far from any courtroom. Both Exotic and Baskin are proficient in warfare on the internet, deploying highly stylized videos in which they are the champions — battlefields of their own making. Exotic — a local hero, sort of, and a hero in his mind, definitely — sells shirts, hats, underwear, personal lubricant; he is a lifestyle brand. In Baskin’s world, everything is feline, down to the fans she addresses at the top of each of her videos: “Hey, all you cool cats and kittens.”

What a peculiar vicarious pleasure this all provides — the visual self-invention, the unfettered self-promotion, the melding of two realities, human and animal, into one. It’s a raw jolt. If only actual reality wouldn’t interfere.

In the second half of the series, for Exotic, it does. (As it has in the real world subsequent to the show’s release, with the leaking of footage of Exotic making racially insensitive statements.) His legal battles with Baskin drain him financially, his potentially criminal activities grow in scope, one of his husbands kills himself (it’s described as accidental), and another leaves him. He loses control of his zoo, the fief of which he was king.

Throughout the series, Exotic calls the show’s directors from jail, generally indignant, but sometimes tearful. His reality has been taken from him, and he’s not sure if he can function in the one everyone else lives in.

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