In 2020, at the height of a global pandemic, the nation found a strange amount of comfort in the wild antics of living fake person Joe Exotic and his divisive rival Carole Baskin. Netflix introduced its subscribers to a secret, underground world of big cats and cutthroat politics by way of Tiger King, the once-limited documentary series that took popular culture by storm. While it’s hard to say exactly why that series was a hit with so many viewers, it feels like it had something to do with its willingness to proclaim “at least you’re not them” in a time when society really needed to hear it. Unfortunately for IMDb TV’s Bug Out, a new free-to-stream docuseries with equally ambitious “I bet you didn’t know these people existed” energy, that time has passed. Or at the very least, it probably won’t come back for ‘Tiger King Lite‘.
It may be unfair to compare the underdog Bug Out to it’s wildly successful forefather, but it’s a hard thing to avoid when the new series is so obviously trying to accomplish all of the same things, albeit with a new skin. The overall concept is eerily similar, with a plot revolving around immense criminal activity that takes place within the confines of a universe the audience has presumably never seen before. Instead of giant midwestern compounds filled with deadly felines, viewers are taken inside of the suburban Philadelphia Insectarium, a building filled to the brim with wacky characters and exotic creepy crawlers. Here, we are told, is where an infamous bug heist took place, resulting in the theft of countless insects worth over $50,000 combined. The investigation into what may have happened, on the part of both the police detectives and the documentarians, opens a door into the unrevealed underworld of black market bug trafficking and all the unexpected worldwide connections that come with it.
Much like Tiger King before it, Bug Out relies heavily on two things to keep the audience interested; slowly fleshing out it’s increasingly bizarre universe and embellishing the sort of larger-than-life personalities that inhabit it. The difference in the initial topic is, where King managed to bring all of it’s universal offshoots back to the main storyline, Bug often finds itself going on long tangents that lead to nowhere. While tales of the Mexican tarantula cartel and legendary Japanese butterfly dealers are certainly intriguing enough to keep people from changing the channel, they don’t really resolve in any sort of fulfilling payoff. The series’ four episodes often feel like multiple separate stories stacked on top of a base mystery that isn’t actually all that complicated. Latter revelations in the show’s prime case make it clear just how much of the production is simply exaggerated fluff, resulting in a diminished feeling that can only be described as the equivalent to “this meeting could have been an email.”
As for the cast of Odd Fellows that viewers will meet along their journey, only a few of them are really able to live up to the entertaining heights the synopsis for the series promised. For the most part, these aren’t the cartoonish characters that make it easy for viewers to love or hate. Sure, there are a couple standouts that linger in the mind for a while after the credits roll. Yet, where King had a collection of vile ne’er-do-wells for the audience to rally against and a handful of benighted bystanders to get behind, Bug just has a lot of people who are doing their best. The majority of the interviewees had very little to do with the crimes at hand, and are mostly just normal folks impacted rather negatively by the actions of the documentary’s few major players. Of course, their appearances and interests may not align with the standards of the common man, but that alone does not make them appropriate storytelling fodder. Yes, there is a personal and professional rivalry that tries to be on par with Exotic and Baskin, but there just isn’t enough there to make the conflict soar.
Ultimately, Bug Out is carried mostly by the pure delightful x-factor that comes with learning about an abnormal way of life. The docuseries goes to great lengths to convince the audience of its own merits, and ironically, its most lasting moments are found in the segues director Ben Feldman uses in an attempt to prove the main storyline’s worth. It wants so desperately to be the next big thing, it spends too much time trying to replicate what came before it. Every face worth remembering and concept most ingraining comes from the sidebars into the deeper world of the bug trade, where the documentary might have been better off focusing on. It’s not what the employees of the Philadelphia Insectarium have to do with the loss of 7,000 bugs that will keep people coming back after each and every episode. It’s what they dabble in during their free time, and in the museum’s back rooms, that’s truly worth watching.