Ever since Tiger King aired, people have been fantasy-casting the inevitable narrative adaptation of the show. We already had one project in the works, based on the Wondery podcast, starring Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin. There is now a second project officially on the go, this one technically deriving from a 2019 article in Texas Monthly (if you are a true crime fan, you should know Texas Monthly and their stellar investigative journalism), and it will star none other than Nicolas Cage, because of course it will. Joe Exotic was already a character Nicolas Cage would play on SNL, so Cage might as well play Joe Exotic in a straightforward dramatic adaptation of the Tiger King story. I’m not against this casting because Nicolas Cage is a very good actor—an insanely committed, impossibly weird but good actor—and especially if he plays Joe Exotic straight, and not like “a character”, then the performance can really be something. But it’s not especially imaginative casting. My top three for Joe Exotic were Danny McBride (could also do Doc Antle in a pinch), Sam Rockwell, or Matthew McConaughey, who resuscitated his career by playing weird characters totally straight, which is what Joe Exotic needs.
I just can’t deal with the prevalent online attitude that Joe Exotic is some kind of folk hero. Tiger King is wildly entertaining, super binge-able television that is crafted to hook you from moment one, and it never quits delivering record scratch, “what did he just say?” moments. But I consider Tiger King a failure based on the sheer number of people who think Joe Exotic is a folk hero done wrong by The Man. The Wondery podcast, retitled Joe Exotic: Tiger King, does a much better job than the Netflix series in laying out the legal case against Joe, including transcript excerpts from his trial that make it clear his attempt to have Carole Baskin killed was not a half-assed drunken misadventure—he legit tried to have another human being murdered. And if that isn’t enough to convince you he does not deserve the Hollywood hero treatment, never forget he killed AT LEAST five healthy tigers. The dude preyed on young men, he preyed on people in need to build his exploited workforce, he tried to have someone killed, AND he was cruel to animals. Like f-ck Joe Exotic, seriously.
One reason I hold out hope that this narrative series will not add to the folk hero halo around Joe Exotic is that it is coming from Dan Lagana, part of the creative team behind American Vandal. A few weeks ago when discussing the inevitable Tiger King show, I told a friend the only person I want to see make a Tiger King TV show is either Werner Herzog—who would be on the side of the tigers, for sure—Paul Thomas Anderson, or the guys behind American Vandal. American Vandal totally understands our true crime obsession, and how a true crime story can spiral out from a simple “what happened?” to “and that’s how we all ended up covered in sh-t”. I’m hopeful that the combination of American Vandal and an inevitably bonkers but no less sincere Cage performance can re-center the Tiger King story where it belongs—on the victims, human and animal, of an egomaniacal pathological liar who is enjoying a moment in the sun largely because Netflix edited out his racism. The story of Joe Exotic is wild, no doubt, but it’s also a tragedy, and animals WERE harmed in the making of it. I would like to see that reflected in the next generation of Tiger King storytelling.