Tiger King 2 does not acknowledge the death of Erik Cowie, a former zookeeper at Joe Exotic’s Oklahoma zoo who also appears in the series, until the very end. He gets a brief memorial photo just before the credits roll after popping up just a couple times in preceding episodes—including, at one point, to call a joke about Donald Trump anally penetrating animal-rights activist Carole Baskin “fabulous.”
Cowie became a household name last year, alongside others who appeared in Netflix’s original Tiger King. He was found dead in a Brooklyn apartment this September; the cause of death was later determined to be acute and chronic alcohol use. One might imagine that his passing would have given producers pause ahead of their release, but the boundaries of good taste don’t exactly seem to matter here anyway.
Tiger King made a folk hero out of Oklahoman private zoo owner Joseph Maldonado-Passage and his “exotic” brand. Eight episodes sketched out his rise as a big cat guy and self-obsessed web personality while also unraveling his demise. The former GW Zoo owner still claims that his alleged murder-for-hire plot against Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin was a set-up, the result of collusion between the feds and his onetime business associate Jeff Lowe. He participated in Tiger King 2 while sitting on a trash can in federal prison.
Joe Exotic is awaiting re-sentencing after a court order this summer. In its finale, Tiger King 2 alleges a miscarriage of justice that could upend the 22-year sentence against him—or at least land a few more people in prison. In the meantime, authorities have seized more than 100 tigers from him, Lowe, and fellow big cat owner Tim Stark—who might actually be the most terrifying figure in Tiger King 2.
Those who found themselves entranced by the spectacle of Tiger King’s original release will find even more unbelievable stories and visuals to gawk at here. All of our favorite “characters” from the original series return, albeit a lot more Cameo-famous than before. (Strip club owner Jeff Garretson even gives an encore of his much-memed jet ski shot from Season 1.)
Tiger King 2’s premiere details how various figures from this world have capitalized on their newfound fame—including Carole Baskin, who joined Dancing with the Stars this year months after the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office reopened the investigation into Lewis’ disappearance, and Joe’s husband Dillon Passage, who has cut ties and is now promoting products including an anal bleach called “Tail Brightener.”
The reveals only get wilder from there.
In one episode, we observe attorneys working to pardon Joe Exotic flying to Washington, D.C. for the January 6 insurrection with a banner promoting their cause. Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me” plays as the plane takes off; as they read the news of violence that broke out after they left early, one of the men says, “I hope our banner got noticed.” Joe Exotic’s brother shows up to shoot a target with his face on it and say he has no interest in seeing his brother after 20 years of estrangement. A “psychic investigator” wanders the grounds where Don Lewis was allegedly last seen and begins weeping—both because he says he had a vision of Don’s murder and because after spending the entire day thinking about chicken, he’d spotted an empty chicken container near a porta-potty. “Okay, alright,” one of Lewis’ daughters says while stroking his arm. “I’ll take a look at it.”
We also spend a fair amount of time with Tim Stark, another big cat guy who went into business with Jeff Lowe after Joe Exotic’s downfall. His appearance culminates with a chilling stand-off against authorities that makes it obvious how untouchable Stark and his fellow big cat owners feel. The series repeatedly reminds us of Stark’s threat to kill his animals before allowing anyone to remove them. “God himself says I can do with them what I choose,” he says.
If all of this is sounding a little scattershot, just know that this is merely the tip of a rapidly-melting iceberg of chaos. Without much of an organizing philosophy, the series meanders from one subject to the next—a couple episodes about Don Lewis’s disappearance here, a rushed finale that implies Joe might one day get exonerated in a Part 3 there. To watch it all in real time is to develop a serious headache.
The composition of this “docuseries” actively works against viewers coming away with a clear understanding of what really happened. A YouTube conspiracy theorist who at one point drags a pair of divers to an alligator-infested lake in Florida in a futile search for Don Lewis’ remains runs alongside noncommittal commentary from investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell. Almost every first-hand source in this series is compromised in one way or another, but such details are often revealed only after the sources advance their theories about what went down between Joe, Jeff, Carole, and everyone else involved in this big cat saga.
At the core of all this is the question that, in many ways, defines our era: How far can these violent, obscenely-wealthy eccentrics take all of their antics? How many laws can they flout, and how many scams can they pull off before justice catches up with them—if it does at all?
How far can these violent, obscenely-wealthy eccentrics take all of their antics? How many laws can they flout, and how many scams can they pull off before justice catches up with them—if it does at all?
But Tiger King 2, it seems, is more into handing anyone with a point of view a microphone and seeing what happens than it is in arranging any sort of commentary. At multiple points, we hear voicemail recordings of people claiming tangential involvement in the case without any indication from the filmmakers as to whether their identities or claims have been verified.
That haphazard reporting and feverish pacing makes it difficult to distinguish the details that might be true from those that are almost certainly false. But the mere fact that this series spends most of its time in that swampy gray area is a big problem on its own. Perhaps that’s why for much of his own commentary, Mitchell leans on the words like “could” and “would”—to avoid sinking too deep into this muck.
Beyond softening Joe Exotic’s image, the original Tiger King also trafficked in the kind of exploitative voyeurism that’s increasingly plagued Netflix’s documentary fare. (See also: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, Britney vs. Spears, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Murder Among the Mormons, and more.) Like its sequel, the original series reveled in conspiracy theories surrounding the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s former husband Don Lewis in 1997 and treated Joe Exotic’s threats against her as equal parts despicable and amusingly ridiculous. Moments of genuine tragedy, like Joe Exotic’s 23-year-old husband Travis Maldonado accidentally shooting himself to death, disappeared into a sickening blend of anecdotes and details arranged to hit viewers like a horrific car accident—gruesome and uncomfortably transfixing.
“This is what he wanted,” former GW zookeeper Saff Saffery says at one point. “To be on every social media platform, on every billboard, to be the talk of the town. Joe has been famous in his own head forever.”
Joe Exotic’s own commentary seems to confirm that he’s loving the name recognition Tiger King has given him—and why not? As his own attorneys note in the documentary, notoriety will likely help his plea for a presidential pardon. “It would be nice if I could actually see me being famous out there, but I mean, I’ve seen these same four walls for a year and a half now,” Joe says.
“I would love to be able to watch the documentary,” he adds. “Maybe later down the road I can. But, you know, with all the guards—they’re singing my music videos and wanting autographs and saying they’re gonna buy my underwear off the internet. It’s fun. It’s cool. I would love to be able to walk out of here, but I can’t.”
Tiger King 2 giddily embraces its predecessor’s viral legacy but avoids engaging with the filmmakers’ own role in this story. The series makes a pretty compelling case that all of its primary subjects are reprehensible attention seekers, but it never quite explains why we needed to give Joe Exotic and his contemporaries the notoriety they clearly crave. A reminder: This is a guy who once allegedly ran over emus in a four-wheeler so that he could sell their remains. Even if he does get exonerated, did we need him to become a public figure—the face of yet another mind-numbing “movement?”
If there’s one thing to praise about Tiger King 2, I guess we could throw them a bone for ending on Joe Exotic’s tigers as they make their new home in a sanctuary. Even then, however, it always comes back to Joe Exotic, who swears that his time behind bars has taught him the evil of his ways. “I know now how my animals felt,” he says. “I feel ashamed of myself. I hope I’ll get a second chance, just like my tigers.”
If there’s one thing Tiger King 2 proves, however, it’s that none of these people seem to know what shame is.