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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Tiger King has poisoned the documentary well for good

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, his seminal work on the business of show, the screenwriter William Goldman lets us in to a secret – in Hollywood no-one knows anything. They make educated guesses, they post rationalise, but if they knew they would only produce hits. He recalls a conversation with a studio boss who runs through why certain movies were hits. When Goldman challenges his thinking on Four Seasons, a hit that fits no mould or prediction, the boss is silent for a long time then says – “that was a nonrecurring phenomenon.” The success of these, says Goldman, “depresses and frightens studio people”.

So, it’s tempting to see the arrival of Tiger King 2 as a potentially terrifying moment for Netflix, other streamers and broadcasters generally. How can you repeat nonrecurring success? Tiger King itself made no sense on screen but its phenomenal success made absolute sense in the light of the pandemic. The world was sat indoors with nothing to do except watch the tawdry horror show unfold. 

According to Ofcom, during the 2020 lockdown we spent nearly a third of our waking hours in front of the TV and streaming services; Tiger King appeared on Netflix on March 20 2020. It’s like the virus wanted us to see a gay, polygamous zoo owner in Oklahoma who stars in his own country-music videos and counts as friends a yoga-loving guru with a tiger-themed sex sect arrange the assassination of an animal-sanctuary owner in Florida. In April 2020, Tiger King was the most watched show in America. 

Just to recap: the first series covered the battle between Joe Exotic, whose animal park was home to over 230 tigers and lions and big cat conservationist Carole Baskin, the owner of Florida’s Big Cat Rescue. She accused him of abusing and exploiting wild animals. Baskin eventually gained ownership of his park, prompting a murder-for-hire plot and Exotic’s subsequent jailing. 

Over the summer of 2020 Exotic was so famous that when President Trump – in the middle of his battle to have the result of a democratic election overturned – announced he was considering issuing a pardon for the crime of hiring a hit man, Exotic arranged for a limo to wait outside the prison with, oh sweet champion of democracy, a wardrobe and a make-up team. Inevitably Kim Kardashian was involved somehow. So how can Tiger King 2 top that?

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