Steel yourself: Joe Exotic (a.k.a. Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage) returns Wednesday in “Tiger King 2,” the sequel to Netflix’s hit docuseries, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” Set in the eccentric world of big-cat collectors and roadside zoos from Florida to Oklahoma, the 2020 series followed attention-seeking, mulleted wild man Joe as he sought to promote himself through any means necessary. He was a fearless tiger tamer. A sensitive country music singer. A gun-toting gay polygamist with reality TV aspirations. A gubernatorial candidate. A disenfranchised victim of the system.
But above all, he loved to talk trash about his competitors, and Netflix exploited those lies. The streamer and filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaikin fashioned all his sideshow antics and smack-talk garbage into a seven-part docuseries — which then became an unlikely global sensation when it was released in March of last year, capturing the public’s imagination in the frightening first days of the COVID-19 shutdown.
The question now is whether Netflix can make lightning strike twice. On a more practical level, how do you make a “Tiger King” sequel when the star of the show is currently serving a prison sentence for hatching a murder plot against his rival, Carole Baskin, and the series helped propagate his smear campaign against her?
Baskin, who runs the Big Cat Rescue Corp. with her husband Howard, is now maligned in Reddit forums, Facebook chats and YouTube videos by people who’ve never stepped foot in her Florida sanctuary, yet are convinced — thus far without evidence — that she killed her former husband, Don Lewis. (Lewis disappeared in 1997 and, since neither he nor his body were ever found, he was declared dead in 2002.) All it took was a captive COVID-era audience and a popular streaming service for Joe to promote the rumor that Carole murdered Don and fed him to her tigers.
“Tiger King 2″ was not made available to the press in advance, but the trailer suggests that Netflix is continuing to cash in on the accusations. It kicks off with Joe’s voice, piped in from a prison call, suggesting an innocent man is in prison and they should take a closer look at his rivals. The rest of the trailer focuses on a host of other characters from the roadside zoo circuit (Jeff Lowe, Tim Stark, Allen Glover and James Garretson), one of whom asks, “What happened to Don Lewis?” Another sound bite ups the ante: “In order for there to be justice, there has to be truth.” Then comes the banner “We’ve only scratched the surface” over footage that includes Baskin. Netflix has teased the show by promising this: “… sudden fame and unwanted attention from the authorities turns up the heat and unearths some stunning revelations!”
The sequel appears to still be looking for a villain, even while its namesake is incarcerated for planning someone’s murder. It’s alarming given that in the original series, Joe often ranted about killing Carole and posted countless disturbing, misogynistic videos. In one, he shows himself shoving a sex toy into the mouth of a blowup doll designed to look like Baskin, then shooting the doll in the head.
Baskin may or may have not done her ex in. I don’t know, and neither does “Tiger King,” which is more exploitative than investigative: scuttlebutt on steroids with a dose of testosterone. Yet for all the hay the series has made out of Baskin’s past, it’s the men featured in both the original and the sequel who in many cases have criminal records, repeatedly threaten each other and own arsenals of high-powered guns. On closer inspection, the current of misogyny in “Tiger King” starts to feel like a riptide: Joe brags that he bailed Lowe out of jail after Lowe “beat up and strangled” his first wife, Kathy. And former employees of zoo owner/showman Bhagavan “Doc” Antle — who has also been charged with wildlife trafficking — claim his compound is like a sex cult, where he pressures underaged female staff to have sex with him, works the girls round the clock and makes them sleep in the equivalent of horse stalls.
One guess why Baskin, of them all, has been held up as the worst of the worst.
Carole Baskin and her current husband, Howard, sued Netflix and the company behind “Tiger King,” Royal Goode Productions LLC earlier this month, arguing that earlier footage of the pair couldn’t be used in any sequel because they would “suffer irreparable harm.” Carole Baskin also posted a refutation on her website of her portrayal in the series, and points to facts that contradict the rumors she killed her former spouse. But her legal battle over the use of the footage won’t be settled before the show’s release, and the Baskins’ request for an immediate restraining order against the sequel was denied.
Carole has reason to be worried: Though she’s had the opportunity since to tell her side of the story, in the Discovery+ docuseries “Carole Baskin’s Cage Fight,” “Tiger King” was one of the most-watched shows in the country last year, and Netflix is the most powerful player in streaming. The original spawned a zany ecosystem of conspiracy theories, trolling and true crime — a mountain of shortcomings “Tiger King 2″ has a lot of work to overcome.
‘Tiger King 2’
When: Anytime, starting Wednesday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)