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Joe vs. Carole Struggles in Shadows of Netflix's Tiger King

“Joe vs. Carole” is a grueling lesson for audiences in “be careful what you wish for” when it comes to narrative adaptations of documentaries. In this case, the sluggish experience for anyone who thought that the wild story of Netflix's “Tiger King” could only be made better by known faces telling the story. At one point, Nicolas Cage was attached to put piercings on his face and play Covid pandemic entertainment icon Joe Exotic; during a reunion special for the first season “Tiger King,” Joel McHale asked everyone who they wanted to play them in a movie. It seemed like an inevitability.

Nearly two years to the release of “Tiger King,” Peacock has taken the bait, and released its own miniseries “Joe vs. Carole,” which is based on the 2019 Wondery podcast "Joe Exotic: Tiger King." As is, however, it has little purpose than to remind you of the first time you learned about this incredible saga. The series repurposes much of what was already stated in the documentary, this time with even more artistic liberties in the storytelling. There’s just no emotional stakes in this story—not necessarily between the characters, whose famous Shakespearean drama is retold in eight 55-minute episodes, but in the reason that this show even exists.  

Lest anyone has forgotten the story of “Tiger King,” “Joe vs. Carole” takes place in much of the same chronological timeline, while jumping back and forth to give us the origins of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, two cult leaders in their worlds of big cat ownership. Both of them have their kingdoms, he with his Oklahoma zoo that lets people touch tiger cubs as if they were household pets, and she with her “sanctuary” which does much of the same but also does not pay its employees. The two clash over what is right about big cat ownership, and as certain sequences show, Baskin has efforts separate from her work to raise awareness and legislature. She also spies on different cat owners, buys them off the black market to try to take care of them, and more. 

The novelty of the series comes from the performances, which are made with perfect faces, and introduced like a big wink—who is that with his head down at the bar? Boom, it’s Joe Exotic’s ill-fated reality TV show producer Rick Kirkham (William Fichtner). Who just rolled up in a snazzy car with sunglasses on and a doo-rag on his head? None other than the later villain to this series, Jeff Lowe (Dean Winters). And so on. The show does not give us new ways to see these figures, but it at least collects them all and gives each of them better lookalikes than most biopics can muster. 

Executive produced by Kate McKinnon, the series does have one particular stance in that it’s more about a balanced view of Carole Baskin, who was met with misogynist memes (“that bitch Carole Baskin”) after the series premiere, essentially blaming the victim. McKinnon has prepared a rich impression of Baskin, and this show gives us numerous opportunities to watch her relish the shot—to see her eyes widen, her body stiffen in shots made with a wide-angle lens. But "Joe vs. Carole" also makes ample space for empathy too, as this series wants to reckon with the serious passion she has for the protection of big cats, making her a begrudging enemy of people like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle. Not for nothing, it wants to give us a little more understanding of her loving relationship with her husband Howard (played by Kyle MacLachlan, who like many others seems to be having a lot of fun with the role). 

It’s when the show focuses on Joe Exotic, played here with commendable chutzpah from John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) that “Joe vs. Carole” shows its limits as a type of reenactment clip show, giving us different key moments we remember from the Netflix documentary that proverbially owns this story, and has the pandemic phenomenon to claim it. If you wanted to imagine what Joe Exotic’s double wedding was like to Travis Maldonado (Nat Wolff) and John Finlay (Sam Keeley), “Joe vs. Carole” does it for you. The same with the moment in which Saff (Lex Mayson) has their arm ripped off in the cage. There are so many moments in the story that are indeed strange, that add to the dramatic arc that made it fascinating back in 2020, but they are presented in such a way that is mighty airless. 

It might sound strange to claim this, but I do not believe that this series was made with ill-intent. The filmmaking is not shallow—it can have some inspired, immersive usage of angles and framing—and the performances themselves are not lifeless, even if they’re playing something straight that was originally sold to us like a reality-altering joke. It would be entirely believable if “Joe vs. Carole” was conceived and produced while trying to forget that the documentary exists, that it got there first. Only, that’s the problem with such unforgettable events, as in this saga. Viewers don’t forget, even as a show like “Joe vs. Carole” reminds them of its many eccentric moments. But why would you patronize something that now feels like a knock-off, when you can enjoy more from the real thing? 

Six episodes screened for review. All episode of “Joe vs. Carole” are now playing on Peacock. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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