The Tiger King Scripted Series and a Protagonist Problem

There’s an aphorism that says that “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and fuck, if that’s not true for Netflix’s Tiger King, it’s not true for anything. Tiger King is a wild ride from the first minute to the last. “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” is the show’s tagline, but somehow that doesn’t quite seem to cover just how absolutely insane the whole thing is.

It was a story that electrified the world, aided by the fact that as soon as it started airing everyone was told to stay at home. Last week, there was news that Nicolas Cage would play Joe Exotic in a scripted series by CBS studios following the success of the Netflix series. I seem to be the only person on the face of the world who isn’t entirely sold on the idea of a scripted Joe Exotic series.

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Part of the appeal – I might even say, most of the appeal – of Tiger King is the fact that it’s so absurd. If you put the things the people in the documentary do or say into the context of a television show without knowing that it was a true story, you’d say, “I don’t believe that, there’s no way something like this would happen in real life.”

Again, liked I talked about in relation to Love is Blind a few weeks ago, Netflix loves big personalities in their unscripted shows. Love is Blind had Jessica, and Tiger King had Joe Exotic. And Carole Baskin. And Doc Antille. And Rick Kirkham. And Jeff Lowe. And James Garretson. See what I mean? Each of these people has just about enough personality to carry their own show.

Mostly, I blame one of my 10 favorite people of the current decade, Community‘s Joel McHale, who hosted “The Tiger King and I,” the follow-up interview show. His last question to each person was, “When this is made into a movie or TV series, who would you want to play you?” And there were some good answers; Rick Kirkham suggested Billy Bob Thornton, and Saff Saffery suggested Brandon Baker from Johnny Tsunami.

There were decent enough suggestions all around, but I’m more irritated that they’re floating the idea at all. Tiger King was such a fascinating and enthralling story, why does it need a show at all? There is nothing that a scripted series could do that Tiger King couldn’t.

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I’ve heard people say that if you’re not going to do anything different with an adaptation, it’s not worth bothering, as though the only way to make an adaptation interesting is to change the source material in some way. I don’t necessarily agree with that; sometimes, adapting a story from one medium to another is enough. By and large, the Harry Potter movies are not that different from the movies, but I don’t think anyone would fault them for that.

But like, why even bother adapting Tiger King to a television series? Adapting books to film makes sense, because it’s different. Adapting video games to television makes sense, a book to graphic novel makes sense. As I had mentioned in my post about Snowpiercer two weeks ago, there’s even value in adapting from film to television, two visual mediums, but both with different run-times. On the other hand, I don’t see the value in adapting from television to television.

Get ready for a shot-for-shot remake of the docuseries. I have a great deal of difficulty believing that Joe Exotic’s story needs a scripted series. There’s nothing such an adaptation can do for the story that the story hasn’t done already.

Nicolas Cage – no matter how much it tickles my casting funnybone – feels like a stunt casting in a cash grab. Joe Exotic is a larger-than-life persona, and the studios seem to think that by casting someone know for his on-screen freak-outs, it automatically justifies the whole thing. And I look forward to hearing Nicolas Cage screaming signature catch phrases like “Fuck that bitch Carol Baskins!” or “I am never going to financially recover from this!” worked into these insane soliloquies that Cage is known for.

I understand that if you are going to do that kind of thing, you gotta go big or go home and casting Nicolas Cage is certainly going big. That being said, I think that putting Joe Exotic in the context of a scripted series would only dilute him. Or worse, make him sympathetic.

That’s already somewhat of an issue. Way too many people already see him as something of a folk hero who took on a sinister woman who was trying to regulate the ownership of big cats. This is a whitewashing of the facts that the show tried to present; I don’t have any great love for Carole Baskin, but most well-adjusted people can recognize hiring a hitman as an objectively evil thing to do. Additionally, the show often shes a light on the way he treats animals, and it’s rarely positive.

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At the very least, I’m glad to see that the idolization of Joe Exotic comes entirely from the fans, not from the Documentary. For its part, the documentary does its absolute best to frame its main character honestly. This comes through in “The Tiger King and I,” in which Joel McHale asks each person he interviews if they think Joe Exotic should be in jail, and everyone seems to agree that he should be. The most damning opinion comes from Rick Kirkham, who called him “evil” and worse than Bill O’Reily. And the last episode of the series proper ends by floating the idea that Joe Exotic was cruel to animals, culminating in Joe’s tearful story about the two chimpanzees who were kept apart at his zoo but joined in a lengthy embrace once they were reunited. It’s an important moment of self-reflection in which Joe doesn’t seem to wrongfully think of himself as the hero of his own bizarre story.

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While I don’t think Carole Baskin is exactly a paragon of virtue, and might have killed her husband (but I doubt she fed him to the tigers), I think that the people who think she’s worse than Joe Exotic are distracted by Joe’s cartoony persona into trusting him more than her. The worst claims against her have yet to be proved (and if they are eventually proven, I will come back and revise this statement). People will often say that she’s no better than Joe in the way she treats her animals, but she gives them more room to roam, and doesn’t breed them for profit.

The natural thing for shows with complex main characters is to portray them as both good and both evil. There doesn’t seem to be quite enough room to portray Joe Exotic as good, I don’t think. I worry that the showrunners will depict him as the lesser of two evils, when compared to Carole Baskin, and I don’t really think that that’s right. Though, I’m willing to bet that I’m fairly alone in that.

I’m sure I’m the only person opposed to this idea, so I want to ask you; would you watch a scripted Joe Exotic series after seeing Tiger King? Do you think Nicolas Cage is the right pick to play this… cultural icon?

And for a bonus question, what’s your favorite Nicolas Cage movie and Nicolas Cage freakout? Mine are Adaptation and his freakout from The Wicker Man.


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