First off, let’s just get the following statements out of the way. Netflix needs to hire Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and Tim Burton to make “Tiger King” into a movie and they need to cast Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Val Kilmer. George Clooney can stunt cameo. It’s what we deserve.
Though the first episode of the show does feel very much like a wealthy professional dilettante (co-director Eric Goode) doing a reality show and punching down at eccentrics who’ve gone through a lot of trauma in their lives. The show’s all about the (tiger) cub petting industry, which has a bunch of exceptionally irresponsible people running private zoos and profiting off breeding tigers for show. The main subject is one Joe Exotic (Michael Keaton), who runs a private zoo in Oklahoma where he has over two hundred tigers. Exotic’s an assault rifle loving, proud gay man with a mullet. He’s a reality show character waiting to happen; shame he’s currently incarcerated because “Big Brother: Tiger King” would definitely bring in the ratings, though apparently if you’re wealthy and in the private zoo racket, you’re so wealthy you wouldn’t need “Big Brother: Tiger King.”
“King” contrasts Exotic, who (according to this episode) mostly feeds his tigers roadkill and accidentally killed dairy cows, with other big cat zoo owners Carole Baskin (Michelle Pfeiffer because even if it’s 2020 it’s still Hollywood) and “Doc” Antle (Val Kilmer). Antle charges a fortune for people to go to his zoo and spends a fortune feeding his tigers. Baskin runs a rescue and presumably feeds them well.
Baskin and Exotic are mortal enemies—the episode does cover the inciting incident, but I don’t remember if it’s when Baskin started tracking Exotic’s mall tours throughout the midwest—the show also goes far in establishing Oklahoma is the Florida of the Middle West—and contacted the mall owners to let them know how bad Exotic’s form of tiger “conservatism” was for the animals themselves. Not to mention the species. Because basically you have a bunch of anti-professionals breeding an endangered species. It’s like realistic Jurassic Park but for idiots.
We see how bad private big cat owning is for the animals, how people with no business having a big cat as a pet—including Shaq—have big cats as pets… we see what happens when private zoos go wrong, which is some rural sheriff’s department having to kill fields of endangered animals (beware, it’s a really upsetting sequence), but what we really see is how—thanks to the Internet—Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin are going to be able to wage a flame war that transcends fiber cables.
In the end, what the episode—which, frankly, isn’t great (it’s way too forced oblivious, like how it avoids accurately presenting craven reality TV producer Rick Kirkham at the start, not to mention Goode egging people on—he’s occasionally onscreen)—establishes is, given Joe Exotic’s personality and persecution complex (he also wars against PETA), it’s inevitable this web-based cold war is going to go hot.