It is possible to attribute the success of the first series to our own limited, bizarre circumstances as viewers. In March 2020, Joe Exotic entered many of our lives, and Tiger King was, for a time, the only thing truly weirder than reality. The enigmatic figures of Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin and Jeff Lowe, all served as wildly unapologetic counters to the figureheads of the emerging pandemic. They operated within their very own political sphere which unravelled from start to finish in incredible and increasing drama. Series one was brilliant in its absurdity.
Yet, in episode one of the second series, the viewers are a little more steady on their feet. And as the direction of the show becomes ‘where are they now?’, we the audience carry the awkward awareness that they are accused criminals, lawless manipulators, and animal abusers.
So where are they now? At the very least gaining further fame by appearing in the second series. “Everybody from the zoo out there is making money”, it is stated. Indeed, the opening of this episode takes a sweeping look at our reaction to the first Tiger King, and the response of its stars. Notably, the reaction to Carole Baskin is observed critically, pointing out the “clear ridiculous misogynistic double standard there”. Carole herself has enjoyed success on the US series, Dancing with the Stars.
Without spoiling too much, many of our favourite crooks and criminals are back for more – but, absent from all of this, is the true star, Joe Exotic. Those present, however, are those hellbent on liberating him.
The effort to free Joe Exotic provides a particularly strange case study for Trump-Era American politics.
“Much like Joe, the effort to free him is flashy and over the top,” a news soundbite blares, as the image of a large bus stating ‘President Trump Please Pardon Joe Exotic’ rolls across the screen.
The ‘Help Free Joe’ movement is yet another profound expression of privilege within the series.
Beautiful irony ensues as supporters wrap ‘the Tiger King Cadillac, believe it or not', with a sticker depicting the phrase ‘I am never going to financially recover from this’ under a shrine-like image of Joe. Fans of the first series will perhaps fondly remember the dark comedy of Joe’s poor reaction to the permanent, life-changing injury of (fan-favourite) colleague, Saff Saffery.
Indeed, Jeff Lowe comments that “if people knew who Joe was, there would not be a single ‘Free Joe’ shirt in America”, and the series does just that: it looks towards the early life of Joe Exotic. Whilst Joe cannot be present, the series still has its Tiger King at its heart.
Episode one of Tiger King 2 has a lot to give. While sustaining that universally-savoured drama of American documentaries, the question our viewership raises, however, is the ethics of such a show. We are very aware of the sustained success of its morally-questionable characters. Looking to the rest of the series, I’d like to see a continuation of the subtle moments of criticism to be found in the first episode. But who knows? This is certainly a series that is as infinitely unpredictable as its subjects.