Joe vs Carole review: a must-watch for die-hard Tiger King fans, if any actually still exist

John Cameron Mitchell impresses as Joe Exotic, and Kate McKinnon also stars as Carole Baskin

There’s this joke at the top of Superstore series six – the opening episode recapped 2020 after coronavirus-related delays – where Marcus, Cheyenne, and Sandra are discussing Tiger King. Marcus, absent from the store for months, is excited to talk about the Netflix documentary, but Cheyenne is dismissive, explaining “that was, like, early pandemic? No one really cares anymore.”

“I think we’re all embarrassed we cared in the first place,” adds Sandra.

A flashback, if anyone needed it. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK went into lockdown on 23 March 2020. (The first US state to lockdown was California, on 19 March.) Tiger King was released on Netflix on 20 March, and quickly became a word of mouth hit amongst people with very little else to do. If lockdown had been brought in a week earlier, maybe everyone would’ve been obsessed with reality series 100 Humans; if it had been brought in a few days later, maybe it would’ve been the second series of Car Masters: Rust to Riches.

It’s in that context that Joe vs Carole arrives, the first of several developing Tiger King series. (Amazon were working on, but have since shelved, a series starring Nic Cage as Joe Exotic, while Ryan Murphy was reported to be working on a version with Rob Lowe as Exotic.) The documentary was a hit, but it was also essentially a fluke, one that people have quite decisively and definitively moved on from – there’s a reason why Tiger King 2 (November 2021) barely made a dent, and why you’ve probably not even heard of Tiger King 3 (December 2021), to say nothing of the special aftershow hosted by Joel McHale (April 2020). The moment has passed – but here’s Joe vs Carole, almost a full two years after the Netflix documentary aired, hoping that it can command your attention again.

Joe vs Carole (technically speaking of an adaptation of a 2019 podcast rather the Netflix documentary, though it’s a distinction that only really matters in legal terms) has the feel of a Jackie Weaver biopic or a Sea Shanty-themed cartoon. You can see why Tiger King’s initial mass popular appeal lead to this eight-hour drama being pitched – it’s a lot more difficult to see why anyone thought that appeal might sustain during the time it actually takes to make eight hours of television.

Kate McKinnon and Kyle MacLachlan as Carole and Howard Baskin (Credit: Mark Taylor/Peacock)Kate McKinnon and Kyle MacLachlan as Carole and Howard Baskin (Credit: Mark Taylor/Peacock)
Kate McKinnon and Kyle MacLachlan as Carole and Howard Baskin (Credit: Mark Taylor/Peacock)

It’s watchable enough, certainly. The underlying story retains the same messy, propulsive momentum, and it’s populated by the same big, flashy characters. It’s surely not quite as eye-catching if you’ve seen the original – and, if you haven’t, how likely are you to watch this version? (Joe vs Carole does tend to assume you’re familiar with the documentary, with an early sequence dedicated to finding Carole’s catchphrase “hello all you cool cats and kittens” that won’t land half as well if you’re not already aware of it.)

What’s striking, though, is the way it often feels like what you might almost call a revisionist take on Tiger King. It casts Joe Exotic as a tragic figure, genuinely invested in his pain and sorrow; he’s still gaudy and ostentatious, but that vulgar sizzle is tempered by a real well of hurt and suffering. The series is committed to humanising Exotic, and interestingly to paralleling him with Carole Baskin – Joe vs Carole flirts with the idea of the pair as two sides of the same coin, both having lead difficult lives and trying to build something new around cats. It’s an attempt at offering a new perspective on a familiar story, albeit one that needs you to care enough about the original to be interested in actually hearing a new perspective on Tiger King.

The strongest part of the series, by some margin, is John Cameron Mitchell’s performance as Joe Exotic. (Joe vs Carole is much more interested in Joe than Carole Baskin – there’s something to be said about how this series, for all that it offers a deeper perspective on Tiger King, doesn’t find as much time for the woman who became a punchline in the wake of the Netflix documentary, but that’s more thought than it actually warrants.) Mitchell’s more than just watchable, he’s good enough to almost make the whole thing worth it – he invests Exotic with a genuine pathos, taking all those loud quirks and turning it into a portrait of wounded vulnerability. The series around him doesn’t quite match (it’s hard not to be glad McKinnon had to exit The Dropout), but it’s at its best when he’s on screen.

Otherwise, though, it’s pretty superfluous, and you won’t miss much by giving this a miss. Unlike another recent Peacock offering, it’s hard not to feel like this is the product of a burgeoning streaming service latching onto the nearest recognisable IP it could and hoping for the best, never really managing much more. Really, it’s the sort of thing that’s only for properly dedicated die-hard Tiger King fans – if any actually still exist, that is.

All 8 episodes of Joe vs Carole will be available to watch from March 4 on Peacock via Sky in the UK. I’ve seen 7 of those 8 episodes before writing this review.

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