The Most-Watched Show in America Is a Moral Failure – The Atlantic

Posted: April 9, 2020 at 5:50 pm

And yet, for the past two-plus weeks, Tiger King has consumed the pop-cultural imagination. Its the stuff memes are made of, heavy on visual absurdity and light on meaning. The series is a carnival sideshow not unlike Joe Exotics central-Oklahoma park: You see the sign on the side of the road and you stop, not because you want to, necessarily, but because its there.

In that sense, Tiger King is also the latest and most acute iteration of a Netflix trend toward extreme storytelling; the more unfathomable and ethically dubious, the better. The point is viralitycontent so outlandish that people cant help but talk about it. In 2018, the docuseries Wild Wild Country set the model, with its jaw-dropping chronicles of an alternative Oregon faith community whose antics allegedly included spiritual orgies, gun hoarding, electoral fraud, and mass poisonings. Last years Abducted in Plain Sight captured the appalling story of a teenage girl who was abused and kidnapped by a family friend, seemingly in full view of her parents. With its reality programming, too, Netflix has been courting eyeballs with simple insanity, via the hit dating series Love Is Blind and the upcoming Too Hot to Handle, a show in which ridiculously good-looking people are sequestered on an island to compete for a cash prize that diminishes every time they hook up, or even masturbate. The more scurrilous or degrading the concept, the more we watch.

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This truism wasnt news for P. T. Barnum, and it isnt news now. But theres still something wretched to me about the way Tiger King has managed to define a cultural moment in which empathy and communitarianism are so crucial. America right now, in the midst of a pandemic, is reliant on collective behavior, adhering to rules, and taking sensible precautions to avoid danger. Tiger King is the TV equivalent of licking the subway pole. Its characters have managed to construct whole worlds around themselves rather than curtail their worst impulses in any way. These characters are so colorful that they obliterate everything else around them. Theyre any documentarians dream, and yet you cant help but wonder what the directors hope to get out of giving showmen the mass exposure that they want. Who, in the end, benefits?

On its face, Tiger King is about a remarkable subculture in the U.S.: people who collect and (illegally) breed big cats. There are, the show reveals early on, more privately owned tigers living in America than there are existing in the wild, kept in independent zoos and parks across the country. (In 2003, authorities discovered that a man in Harlem was cohabiting with a 400-pound tiger named Ming, in the same apartment that his mother was using to babysit children.) If the people drawn to tigers have a shared quality, Tiger King emphasizes, its extroversion, which it illustrates in one scene with footage of Doc Antle riding an elephant into town while opining in voice-over about the primordial calligraphy of exotic animals.

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The Most-Watched Show in America Is a Moral Failure - The Atlantic

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