Probably no two people on the planet despise each other more intensely than Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, the pair of dueling big-cat lovers made famous by Netflix’s reality shit-show Tiger King. Like any set of bitter enemies, their feud is fueled as much by the things they have in common, as it is inflamed by their implacable differences.
Memorably documented in Tiger King, and now gleefully depicted in Peacock’s appropriately strange new comedy series Joe vs. Carole (★★★☆☆), Baskin and Mr. Exotic each established their own sprawling animal parks — hers a Florida sanctuary for rescuing wild beasts, his a carnival-style zoo and sideshow in rural Oklahoma.
Both wily entrepreneurs, they share a bold, independent spirit, a passion for tigers, and a dedication to statement hairdos and animal-print attire.
They’re both also rabidly spiteful, mean, and, hellbent on their opposing big-cat missions, potentially murderous. Baskin veils her venomous side behind cheerful confidence and a plastered-on smile, warbling her catchphrase “Hey, all you cool cats and kittens” to her online followers.
Joe Exotic doesn’t try to disguise any of his worst characteristics, but instead aims to compensate with petty largesse and cheap showmanship.
John Cameron Mitchell’s vivid portrayal of Joe is a good deal cuddlier than the real deal. Verbally bashing Baskin in one scene, seducing either of his two boyfriends the next, he’s hard to pin down as mere lowlife or villain.
Delving into the early romantic partnership, with hunky bartender Brian (Nic English), that led Joe into the animal handling business, the series finds slivers of decency and vulnerability that viewers of the documentary might not have fathomed.
Despite excellent hair and makeup, Mitchell doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to the actual Joe Exotic (né Schreibvogel), but he captures the guy’s backwoods Barnum persona.
Sam Keeley, as Joe’s bisexual lover and right hand John Finlay, and Nat Wolff, as much younger boyfriend Travis Maldonado, both supply layered support in what turns out to be a heartfelt gay/bi story of finding love in a hopeless place.
Kate McKinnon likewise doesn’t embody Baskin’s physical presence, but rather exudes her loopy yet queenly manner and droll sense of humor. McKinnon nails the quip-heavy dialogue, and has a delightful scene partner in Kyle MacLachlan, playing Carole’s doting husband, Howard.
The Baskins, Joe Exotic, and his entire crew of husbands, misfits, and con artists are a hoot, but their various run-ins and romances add up to something less than the whole. Based on the podcast Over My Dead Body: Joe Exotic by writer and host Robert Moor, Joe vs. Carole seems to want to ride the wave of an inexplicable phenomenon yet never manifests its own purpose.
Recounting the lives and times of its titular duo as if supplying the never-before-seen backstory of major celebrities, the show assumes our interest more than cultivating it with compelling plotting. Satisfied that we’re already familiar with these people, find them amusing, and know what they did to wind up famous, the series more or less just re-enacts those events with a wink and sharp nudge, and a menagerie of impressively CGI-rendered tigers, apes, and other beasts.
If there’s insight, it comes in the form of watching self-proclaimed “gay redneck” Joe and his harem attempt to eke out their own safe, queer space in not entirely hospitable surroundings. As with the headlining showdown, the boys win their share of battles, but may not win the war.
All eight episodes of Joe vs. Carole are available for streaming exclusively on Peacock Premium. Visit www.peacocktv.com.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!