Carole Baskin, ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and the new era of stunt casting

'Tiger King' star Carole Baskin is on the latest season of 'Dancing with the Stars.' (Photo via YouTube)

Here on the diversions desk, it’s our job to sift through the wasteland of reality television, questionable Netflix series and bizarre pop culture happenings, all so you don’t have to. While looking for stories recently, I took a spin to see what shows are still in production during COVID-19, and I was surprised to find Dancing With the Stars had premiered its 29th(!) season last Monday.

It’s been 15 years since the show first came to our living rooms, stunning us with the surprising choreography abilities of, or lack thereof, our favorite B-list celebrities. It’s also been no secret the contestants on the show are falling further and further away from “star status.” (I’m looking at you, Redfoo.)

But one casting choice from this season caught my attention by how much it stood out from the others: Carole Baskin, the leopard-printed, kooky, manipulative, alleged husband murderer who was the breakout star of Netflix’s Tiger King earlier this year.

Baskin has avoided elimination so far, but from what I can tell, it’s been more based on her novelty value than any true dancing ability. But then again, saying that dancing ability will win you Dancing With the Stars is like saying singing ability will win you The Masked Singer. Novelty, as it turns out, is actually your strongest asset.

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No reality show is immune from this kind of stunt casting, but there are a number of reasons why Baskin feels different. For one, there’s that whole “allegedly killing her husband and possibly feeding him to the tigers she worships” thing. Admittedly, that’s the kind of road to stardom that can’t be equaled — not that anyone would want to. 

Secondly — and more importantly to me — it’s the kind of gimmick that just feels more egregious and ludicrous than any other that I’ve seen. I mean, look at this. A Tiger King figure whose qualifications for stardom include being the target of a fellow tiger owner who wanted her killed. And she dances to “Eye of the Tiger” because we must be living in a simulation at this point. 

Baskin’s appearance brings ridiculous stunt casting to a new low, taking it so far that it single-handedly creates a “jumping-the-shark” moment for the show.

So I’m coining a new term: The Carole Baskin Effect. It’s when notoriety, bad taste and flash-in-the-pan novelty create such a baffling pop culture moment that it leaves you without any ability to analyze it. It doesn’t mean anything to say it’s bad because everyone knows it’s bad. You can’t knock the novelty value of it because that’s all it is. It’s not about how Dancing With the Stars decided to go with a nontraditional celebrity — it’s more about how ghastly it is that Dancing With the Stars decided to resurrect the pop culture shelf life of Baskin and her morbid infamy.

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Baskin’s fame was initially so stomach-churning and wrapped up in such a bizarre saga that it acted as a weird supernova of prominence. We all watched Tiger King during the beginning of quarantine, we were obsessed with it for about a week and a half and then we were collectively done with it. Even while I was writing an article in March about the questionable fashion choices on the show, it felt like I had missed the apotheosis of the craze — even though the show had only been out for 10 days at that point. It was synonymous with ridiculousness, and because it was so insanely popular for such a short time, it curdled right in front of our eyes. 

Tiger King was the premier example of our diminished pop culture attention spans. Quarantine meant we all had way too much time on our hands, and platforms such as Netflix and TikTok were quick to fill those hours. Tiger King was a meme run amok, too stuffed with insane twists and turns to be condensed and written off, but too absurd and unintentionally hilarious to warrant any significant artistic or cultural consideration.

So why is Dancing With the Stars trying to squeeze whatever is left out of a dead pop culture relic’s legacy? Maybe television executives just can’t work fast enough. If ABC could have moved up the production of Dancing With the Stars during the same week of Tiger King’s Netflix premiere just because Baskin agreed to be on it, they would have happily bent over backward to make it happen. The show is still getting publicity for casting Baskin, but it doesn’t feel like the goofy fun that reality stunt casting usually is. It feels forced and weird and highly uncomfortable.

Maybe that says more about Baskin herself than of pop culture as a whole, but it still remains proof that we’re so far beyond “good taste” and “bad taste” that there’s practically no line between the two in the world of pop culture. It’s all just a gelatinous stew of questionable morals and hyper-novelty. And what better place for that to metastasize than Dancing With the Stars.

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