The prestige podcasting era began in 2014, when the true-crime Serial gripped us with the ‘did-he-dunnit’ mystery of whether Adnan Syed had really murdered his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
With the exception of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, it remains the decade’s most influential piece of narrative storytelling. Without Serial there is noThe Jinx, no Making a Murderer, no true-crime revival full-stop, and without the success of those shows we wouldn’t have our current culture of viral documentary content — American Murder, Don’t F**k With Cats, The Devil Next Door, Wild Wild Country, My Octopus Teacher; shows you watch slack-jawed with amazement, eyes out on stalks at humanity’s capacity to willingly plunge itself into pure insanity.
Speaking of Tiger King, what is it about the pairing of big cats and bad hairdos that fills me with a lurching, queasy sense of impending physical catastrophe? It came up again in Wild Things, a new high-budget podcast from the filmmaker and journalist Steven Leckart.
It retells the story of the magical duo Siegfried and Roy, whose blockbuster Vegas show revolved around performing illusions involving wild animals, and every mention of either the beasts or the bouffants left me feeling anxious and carsick. Tiger and mullet, tiger and mullet: they go together like finger and gullet.
In the 1980s, when Siegfried and Roy arrived in Las Vegas, the days of the headline magic act were supposed to be over. The duo bucked the trend by bringing a mittel-European sincerity to their ultra-camp extravaganza, whose most famous illusion involved making a 400lb Siberian tiger disappear.
The duo told the world’s press that they shared a familial bond with their tigers, which seem to have been their great personal passion as well as their greatest commercial draw. They claimed to have raised the tigers practically from birth and said they co-slept with them for the first year of their lives to establish a bond of affection. One animal in particular had an intriguing origin story. They claimed that it had died immediately after being born, but miraculously survived after one of the two pushed its whiskers aside and performed emergency mouth-to-muzzle resuscitation.
For unto us a cub is born: they called it Montecore, after a tripartite monster drawn from Middle Eastern myth that was part-human, part-lion and part-scorpion. The name, a variation of which the author Robertson Davies used for the last novel in his Deptford Trilogy, comes from the middle Persian for ‘man-eater’.
There goes my stomach again. When the attack happened, during a live stage show in 2003, Roy had to be brought back from the dead multiple times on the operating table. A full-grown tiger’s teeth are three inches — about the length of a standard nail — and Montecore’s jaws crushed the magician’s neck and shoulder with ease as it dragged his limp body from the stage.
The whole affair is a strange blend of farce and tragedy. On the way to the hospital, as Roy bled out in the back of the ambulance, he used his dying breath to insist that the tiger had done nothing wrong and shouldn’t come to any harm. The audience, for their part, had to be persuaded multiple times to leave. They thought the whole thing was part of the act.
This is great material. Wild Things’ problem is that it can’t work out what to do with it. Using the mould that Serial established, it casts an air of insinuating mystery over everything it encounters. Unlike that series, though, it doesn’t really know what question it’s asking. Is this an investigation into the attack? The magic act? Las Vegas? Is it a dual biography? An examination of homophobia in the 1980s? Wild Things tries to be all of these things and ends up as almost none of them.
The one thing one really does want to know about is the nature of Siegfried and Roy’s relationship. Were they lovers? Lifelong friends? Alas, we’re reprimanded for even wondering. ‘These questions say more about us than they do about them,’ says Leckart sternly. To which one can reasonably respond: nonsense. If anything mattered in these men’s lives, it was who they were to each other.
In the most recent episode, ‘An Inside Job?’, for instance, we hear about the Las Vegas police force’s investigation into the tiger attack. Much is made of a mysterious woman with a honeycomb haircut: did she provoke the animal into attacking Roy? Unfortunately, a new doorway opens on to broom cupboards, the theories proving, in each case, more or less laughable. Hoping to provide the stock number of twists and turns, Leckart and his team trawl widely for red herrings. But without any real mystery at the heart of things, they can’t stop their ship from drifting into the windless waters of mild interest.
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