Audiences stuck at home in the early days of the pandemic couldn’t get enough of Tiger King, Netflix’s truth-is-stranger-than-fiction docuseries that chronicled the epic feud between two big cat enthusiasts, Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. The series gleefully leaned into its story’s most bizarre moments, turned its stars into caricatures, and in hindsight, was more exploitative than insightful. Now, there’s Joe vs. Carole, Peacock’s new scripted series that offers a more thoughtful – though far less binge-able – take on the whole messy saga.
Kate McKinnon and John Cameron Mitchell star in ‘Joe vs. Carole’
Joe vs. Carole arrives at a time when interest in the Tiger King phenomenon has waned considerably. A Netflix sequel released last fall was met with a collective shrug, and a spinoff series about Doc Antle was basically ignored. Joe vs. Carole has a top-tier cast, including Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin and John Cameron Mitchell as Joe Exotic. But it’s hard to imagine that many people were eagerly waiting for another spin on the pair’s ugly feud, which ended with Exotic behind bars after convictions on murder-for-hire and animal cruelty charges.
This eight-episode series from showrunner and writer Etan Frankel is based on the Wondery podcast Joe Exotic: Tiger King. It traces the origins of Carole and Joe’s rivalry, which begins when big cat rescuer Carole decides she’s going to shut down Joe’s animal shows and roadside zoo. It also dives into Joe and Carole’s troubled, complicated pasts in an attempt to illuminate how they ended up locked in such a bitter battle. Along the way, it asks viewers to reconsider their assumptions about each person.
A feud between two wounded outsiders
Both Joe and Carole are wounded outsiders who find sanctuary in the world of big cats. She’s a thrice-married survivor of domestic abuse; he’s a gay man from Oklahoma who once attempted suicide by driving his car off a bridge. Given their difficult pasts, it’s no surprise that when they feel threatened, the claws come out.
Joe vs. Carole has a wealth of empathy for its two main characters, though it also shines a light on their considerable flaws. Early on, Carole has an opportunity to resolve her legal battle with Joe in a way that almost guarantees he’ll have to shut down his operation. But she doesn’t take it, because there’s a slim chance his zoo might survive the financial hit. By digging in her heels, she escalates the conflict. Joe has a genuine love for his animals and a willingness to take in human strays. But his desire for fame (and revenge) end up destroying all he’s built.
John Cameron Mitchell disappears into his character
As Carole, a bewigged McKinnon sometimes feels like she wandered over from the SNL set. Her performance is all wide eyes and jutting chin. She’s best in Joe vs. Carole’s more subtle moments, such as a flashback where she launches a potato at her first husband’s head after he belittles her as she cooks dinner. In close-ups, we see her reaction as he hurls insults, followed by a look of genuine fear as she realizes how he’s likely to respond to her attempt to fight back.
Mitchell disappears more fully into his role. His Joe morphs from a shy, baby-faced young man wandering the halls of a rehab center after his car accident to the over-the-top showman who decides hiring a hitman to kill a rival he’s never met will save his business. In between, we see his deep grief over the death of his first husband Brian from AIDS, an event barely touched on in Tiger King. Here, it’s a tragedy that unmoors Joe and starts him down his path to ruin. But the series sidesteps the issue of how he treated his animals. It also asks viewers to sympathize with a man who planned to have a woman murdered.
‘Joe vs. Carole’ is a mix of campy comedy and serious drama
Joe vs. Carole is crowded with colorful secondary characters, including Carole’s mild-mannered and endlessly supportive husband Howard (Kyle MacLachlan) and Joe’s other husbands – John Finlay (Sam Keeley), Travis Maldonado (Nat Wolff), and Dillon Passage (Tom Rodgers). The various oddballs who live and work at Joe’s GW Zoo also appear, including down-on-his-luck TV producer Rick Kirkham (a solid but underused William Fichtner), Jeff Lowe (Dean Winters), and zookeeper John Reinke (Brian van Holt).
These supporting players come and go without much explanation, with the exception of Travis. He takes center stage in the episode focused on his untimely death and which frames his story as a fairy-tale gone sour. A voiceover from Wolff bookends that episode, a random stylistic choice that somehow feels out of place here. Joe vs. Carole lurches from one bizarre moment to the next, often recreating scenes audiences have already seen play out in Tiger King, such as Joe’s three-way wedding to Travis and John. The show awkwardly straddles the line between campy comedy and serious drama in a way that doesn’t really land.
Try as it might, Joe vs. Carole can’t quite cover up the fact that an impulse to gawk at “weirdos” drove much of the initial interest in the pair’s feud. The result is an uneven, tonally inconsistent series that makes a valiant effort to humanize the real people at the heart of this strange story. But at this point, it’s not clear why anyone should care.
Joe vs. Carole is streaming on Peacock beginning March 3.
Check out Showbiz Cheat Sheet on Facebook!