OOf all the real-life dramas that have made their way onto our screens lately, Joe vs. Carole (Peacock/Now TV) is the most confusing. It’s hard to see why this had to be done, given the sheer outrageousness of the Joe Exotic/Carole Baskin big cat feud already seen in Netflix’s explosive documentary Tiger King (although that new show is based on a podcast, rather than this series). It’s also hard to see how the creators could ever craft a story so far-fetched that if it weren’t true, it would be impossible to appear believable in any way.
Yet here we are, with an eight-part drama that seems to have succeeded. I say this with caution, based on the first three episodes that have been made available for review in advance. It’s hugely entertaining, hitting just the right tone, half absurd, half empathetic, aware of its own limitations (those CGI wild animals would make The Lion King blush live) and playing up the flawed characters at its heart. But for all its extravagance and savagery, it may prove more sensitive than the Netflix series.
Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon is Baskin, the woman with a troubled past who channels her energies into her big cat rescue sanctuary, while plotting to root out the big cat dealers who seem disturbingly prolific in the United States. John Cameron Mitchell, from Hedwig and the Angry Inch and most recently The Good Fight, is Joe Exotic, a lost soul who finds his own kind of salvation in the big cats, though his bifurcation leads him down a much darker path. Both are perfectly molded and perform well in a difficult task. It would be easy for them to tip over into parody, given that there’s so much that lends itself to caricature about the two characters. It takes a few moments to settle (especially for viewers aware of McKinnon’s past and his skills as an impressionist) and then becomes more self-assured.
The choice was clearly made to avoid parody at all costs. It’s a sensible move that, in another weird reveal, turns out to be a quality the story badly needed. For all the craziness of the opera, there are tragedies at the heart of it, and by the end of episode three, this has to resolve them. The disappearance of Baskin’s husband, Don, and the arrival of Exotic’s doomed young husband, Travis, looms large. These dark events are handled less comfortably than loud events, such as a drunken seduction or an upset carnival show. It remains to be seen how he deals with these tragedies as they unfold. So far, her tone is more suited to energetic hijinks than death and heartbreak.
For now though, it’s trying to find the humanity in the story and in the characters caught up in it. There’s homophobia, domestic violence, flashbacks to the cruelties endured by Exotic and Baskin. But there’s also a sheep spray-painted to look like a tiger, kissing a camel, and Exotic walking into a gay bar with a fat cat on a chain, looking for love. Joe vs. Carole is a lot to take in, as one would expect. You can hardly call the source material underrated. But it’s invigorating, fun and surprisingly measured. If the Tiger King saga hasn’t lost its luster for you, there are worse ways to dive back into its jaw-dropping twists.