Why are you watching this? You have to ask yourself that question about most movies and TV shows, whether the answer is to learn something valuable or just to while away some time. But few TV shows invite you to think about it as much as Joe vs. Carole, a new drama that recreates the events of Tiger King — a show you probably already watched.
Joe vs. Carole streams on Peacock this Thursday, March 3. It’s an 8-episode series in which John Cameron Mitchell and Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon play fictionalised versions of feuding animal lovers Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. The series attempts to delve beyond the real-life Joe and Carole to understand what drove these two larger-than-life characters in their bizarre battle, and does a pretty good job of going beyond mere impersonation. But it isn’t shocking or sensational any more, and it isn’t that funny either. Why is it worth your while going over this well-trodden ground once again, and is it even fair to the show’s real-life subjects to give them this black comedy treatment?
We met — and became obsessed with — the realin Netflix’s documentary Tiger King. The world went into lockdown just as it hit streaming in early 2020, and viewers didn’t have much else to do but watch this sensational and salacious true story about rival zoo owners leading to a bizarre murder conspiracy. Having become intimately acquainted with these real-life oddballs, of course it was fun to talk about casting for the (multiple) proposed adaptations. Who wouldn’t want to see Nicolas Cage play Joe Exotic or Kate McKinnon as Carole?
There’s only so far that recognition can get you, however, and Joe vs. Carole gets better the more you get past the initial superficialities of whether the actors look like the real people (some do, some don’t). I wasn’t sure about Mitchell at first, but he’s great as Joe, adding pathos and charm to this roadside rock star’s familiar loudmouthed bluster. The jury’s out on McKinnon, however. Even in emotional moments like the scenes where she tries to connect with her daughter, McKinnon’s galumphing walk and flashing eyes suggest she’s playing a character in a sketch. And the series seems like it can’t resist making Carole Baskin look silly.
But then it begins to show the steel beneath the billowing tie-dye t-shirts. The value of a true-life drama is that it can show you things you haven’t seen, giving you access to people and events who weren’t captured by the documentary cameras. Joe vs. Carole doesn’t have a huge amount of new information to offer, especially if you’ve followed the story beyond the Netflix documentary, but a dramatization can also shed light on who these people are. The dramatized depiction of Carole Baskin — maybe we should call McKinnon’s character “Carole” — flashes back to her youth and her life, presenting almost a story of twentieth century womanhood. She faces a parade of bullies from the schoolyard onwards, and is forced to bite her tongue. But “Carole” refuses to accept a lifetime of domestic drudgery and domestic abuse, tapping into a well of conviction despite the obstacles in her way.
The series is sympathetic to the feuding pair, an underestimated woman finding her calling and a gay man in an intolerant world. But like the recent streaming drama, Joe vs. Carole depicts actual real people — without their involvement. Like animals prowling cages, Carole Baskin and Joe Maldonado-Passage (and Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee) are just exhibits.
Another similarity to Pam & Tommy is that the series touches on the different ways men and women in the public eye are treated. But you’re mostly left to draw your own conclusions about why the real Joe Exotic won legions of fans as a fabulous rogue, while Carole, an earnest but probably selfless woman, has been treated with ridicule and scorn.
Again, we come back to that question about why we’re watching. True crime documentaries are already uncomfortable if you think too closely about it, if you examine the voyeuristic urge that drives us to ogle other people’s misery and pain. This blackly comic new version of the story adds another layer of weirdness as we relive real events with stylized needle drops, winking close-ups of meat grinders and a Saturday Night Live comedian in a wig.
The real Tiger King story may look like a bunch of larger-than-life characters doing outrageous things in a loony world of cute animals. But it involved a campaign of abuse against a real woman, and put a real man in prison, not to mention the people in their lives who died. And now, this drama implicates all of us in questions about how their lives are no longer their own.
As the feuding animal lovers get to grips with the limelight, the show depicts Joe and Carole wrestling with the realization that their passions come with public scrutiny. The series shows how they came to the point that they had to make tough choices about how much they were prepared to show the world. Even the Joe and Carole we see in real life are personas conjured by the pair, complete with “cool cats” catchphrases and name changes and on-line videos. But by peeking into their closest relationships — warmly portrayed — the dramatized Joe vs. Carole reveals flawed and hurt people, which may draw you to re-evaluate your feelings about the real-life story.
Ultimately, that’s what a drama series does that a documentary can’t. At first it’s easy to get caught up in superficial questions like whether the actors look the part, but after spending more time in their private worlds, the series does humanize them. It might seem counter-intuitive, but a documentary which deals in facts and first-person narratives feels more like a subject to be gawked at, where a drama is more intimate and empathetic.
That said, you have to draw your own conclusions about whether Joe Exotic deserves so much commiseration. Joe vs. Carole tries to be even-handed in its treatment of Carole, but there’s certainly some stylistic choices throughout the series and in the final episode which make it pretty clear where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie.
Why are you watching this? There’s no doubt it’s an incredible story, and says something about the human need for love and warmth and how easy it is to lose your way. But the whole Tiger King thing is a zoo. The animals claw at their cages. And we keep buying tickets.