A desire for escapism is one of the most common reasons people seek media. The circumstances in which we are currently living, and the fact that there is literally no excuse not to be watching Netflix right now, means that regular reality TV or standard binge-worthy true crime just aren’t cutting it anymore.
Enter Tiger King, helpfully and aptly subtitled Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. Other nouns you could add include Bleached Mullets, Ex-Drug Lords and Country Songs About Brutally Murdering Your Spouse. The show blazes in all its absurdity, smoking like a motorway car crash, while thirty-four million people slow down to take a better look.
Emotionally, the show is the polar opposite of stuff like Queer Eye or Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, but it fulfils the same need. While the latter can make you feel better about the chaos of your own life by pointing your gaze upwards to an aspirational vision of colour-coded cabinets and Tan France’s immaculate fashion sense, the lure of true crime is that it can do the same while making you look downwards and outwards into the gutter and fringes of society.
That’s what has made it so incredibly popular. There’s something deeply comforting in knowing that, as much as your life might be slipping off balance in self-isolation, you’ll never end up as a white-blonde, gun-toting, mulleted polygamist facing two decades in prison for hired murder and nine violations of animal protection laws. Probably.
The show also does so well because of the absence of truly sympathetic victims. In more grounded true crime series, like Making a Murderer or Abducted in Plain Sight, significantly more attention is paid to the victims’ pain. It’s difficult to fully lose yourself in the story because you are rightly reminded, often by their testimony, that actual, innocent people died or suffered violence at the heart of the story the producers are telling.
In Tiger King, the primary victims are – depending on who you believe – Carol Baskin’s late husband, the workers, and the animals themselves, whose stories the documentary was never truly interested in telling. You get, in short, the release and the disgust and the adrenaline of true crime, without being weighed down by the realities of the people and animals who are hurt by it.
And on the topic of sympathy, Tiger King also does well because of the type of person it chooses to mock. You couldn’t really have a show like Tiger King featuring a traditionally marginalised minority – not without facing an intense social media backlash. But younger and more liberal viewers are willing to uncritically accept the caricature the series offers, of the lower-class, redneck, hillbilly, gun-toting white American, garlanded in leopard print and covered in spray-tan. Which is why it works. A show perfectly designed to offer release has to do that without troubling itself with the burdens of social responsibility.
That isn’t to say that culture critical media analysis is a bad thing; for the most part, it’s incredibly beneficial, and a deeply necessary project in the ongoing task of making the art we consume conform to the values we hold. But it does take effort. The liberation of watching something like Tiger King is that it demands nothing from you but your instincts.
In a time when everything is anxiety-inducing and exhausting, Netflix has created something that can wrench your attention away from the twenty-four-hour news cycle without making you do anything more than keep looking at the screen. And, for better or for worse, that’s what most people need right now.