Joe vs Carole review: New series based on Tiger King is almost hypnotically pointless

Kate McKinnon stars in a misguided docudrama that veers haphazardly between bad taste dramatics and hairbrained comedy

Adam White
Friday 04 March 2022 07:55
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JOE vs CAROLE | Official Trailer | Peacock Original

Rivalling sourdough and perpetual dread as the most exhausting side effect of the early pandemic, Tiger King was Netflix snake oil. Dressed up in prestige true-crime packaging, the smash hit docuseries was a modern-day Jerry Springer Show, built upon the exploited backs of eccentrics and criminals on society’s fringes. Luckily, everyone got sick of it. Its sequel, Tiger King 2, sank without a trace last November. This hypnotically pointless eight-part dramatisation will hopefully follow suit.

Tiger King explored the stranger-than-fiction saga of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, flamboyant rivals in the big cat world. It was a tale as old as time: man with bad hair and a cage full of tigers is accused of abusing them by an animal rights activist, man hires assassins to take the activist out, man goes to jail and the activist goes on Dancing with the Stars. The specifics were lurid and bleak, with Exotic and Baskin linked by traumatic histories and deceased spouses and the show treating it all like the world’s most depressing carnival attraction. Baskin would end up attempting to sue Netflix, claiming she’d been betrayed as the series implied she’d potentially murdered her former husband and fed him to her big cats.

Two years on from Netflix’s show we have Joe vs Carole, a dramatisation of the pair’s chequered history starring John Cameron Mitchell and Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon. It comes amid a glut of ripped-from-the-headlines docudramas that aim to re-angle buzzy stories we think we know, from Inventing Anna and Pam & Tommy to The Dropout, about the disgraced healthcare wunderkind Elizabeth Holmes. Like those before it, Joe vs Carole attempts to take a more nuanced approach to pop culture caricatures, but struggles to align its ambitions with its contents.

Unsure if it wants to be a sensitive portrayal of trauma or a comedy skit, Joe vs Carole instead decides to be both. It leaves giggle-inducing metaphors to do the heavy lifting and dramatises real-world horror with a neon-soaked, pop-video sheen. A particular low point comes early on, with Carole describing the strength of her furry friends – “Cats start out so innocent”, she says, “but they figure out a way to survive” – alongside a montage of her teenage gang-rape and subsequent time living on the streets. As it goes on, the show veers haphazardly between bad taste dramatics and hairbrained comedy. Mitchell sources mania and pathos from a tricky character, while McKinnon is strong for the most part, but Carole’s wackier moments – her inability to use a phone, or her struggles to come up with a catchphrase – have the whiff of bad improv.

Primarily, though, the show isn’t clear about why it needs to exist. Tiger King’s appeal – however misguided – was its proximity to reality, and the voyeuristic thrill of watching a convoluted and undeniably loopy story. Joe vs Carole merely photocopies it, resulting in something neither illuminating nor emotionally cathartic.

By the time Carole is set up by the makers of Tiger King and “turned into an internet meme” in the show’s eighth episode, Joe vs Carole has had its cake and eaten it, too: critiquing a culture that catapulted two troubled people to instant fame, while simultaneously recreating their stories for laughs and faux concern. It’s a bizarre note to end on, and exposes the moral failings of a show that no one asked for, and certainly no one needed.

‘Joe vs Carole’ can be streamed from Friday 4 March on Peacock on Sky and NOW

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