After the success of Netflix’s “Tiger King,” the Joe Exotic/Carole Baskin story now gets a dramatization in “Joe vs. Carole.” The Peacock series is compelling: It presents this strange-but-true tale of the rivalry between Joe (out actor John Cameron Mitchell), the owner of a private zoo in Oklahoma, and Carole Baskin (out actress Kate McKinnon, who executive produced), who heads a big cat rescue in Tampa.
The show cuts back and forth between these two passionate, flamboyant characters and is designed to show not just the differences between them, but also their similarities. It becomes easy to cheer for Team Joe or Team Carole — or hiss at them — at different times over the course of the eight episodes that culminate in the courtroom and a brief aftermath.
“Joe vs Carole” opens to strains of ABBA’s “Tiger” before Carole is informed that a hit has been put out on her. “He ordered my murder like it was a pizza from Little Ceasars,” she deadpans. The series soon flashes back to what lead up to Joe’s fateful decision.
Much time is spent establishing both characters and their backstories. Joe runs a zoo in Oklahoma and handles exotic animals. This extends to his staff, which is a collection of misfits that he houses and employs. He also occasionally seduces them. One night, Joe comes on to John (Sam Keeley), and they fall in love. Not long after, Joe picks up Travis (Nat Wolff) and falls in love with him as well. Joe eventually marries both men in a wedding ceremony filmed for a reality show he hopes Rick Kirkham (William Fichtner) will sell to networks. But that is getting ahead of the story.
Meanwhile, Carole is fighting to stop animal abuse and neglect, even campaigning to introduce a “Big Cat” bill into law through congress. Her efforts to save the cats are relentless, and yet she has the support of her husband Howard (Kyle McLachlan) and others. When she goes after Joe Exotic, however, she ends up picking a fight that consumes both of them.
“Joe vs Carole” makes the beef that escalates between these two larger-than-life characters amusing as they each one-up the other. Joe creates a fake website and terrorizes her sanctuary, so Carole sues Joe for $1 million. He gets mad and countersues for $15 million dollars. When the case goes to mediation, Joe’s outsized personality initially causes a deadlock and ultimately wages war.
The backstories that emerge over the course of the series have relevance, but they can also feel like padding. It is important for Carole’s first husband to be seen as abusive, and for her second husband, who went missing, to have done her wrong as well. Joe exploits the fact that Carole is suspected of murdering her second husband — especially when he gets his hands on information from one of Carole’s disgruntled employees.
Joe’s past is also significant, as he meets a bartender and they eventually become partners and owners of a pet shop. But Joe gets infuriated with the homophobia they face as a couple from landlords and bakers. At his zoo, Joe’s staff and his subsequent business partners — including Jeff Lowe (Dean Winters) — never bat an eye at him being a “gay redneck.”
“Joe vs. Carole” shows how the rivals each suffer a series of personal and/or professional losses that are only compounded by the lawsuits. They each blame the other for their tragedies (and their triumphs), and their reversals of fortune reveal their true characters. McKinnon and Mitchell play their characters to the hilt, with performances that are as loud as their wardrobes. (She favors animal prints, ‘natch; he is frequently seen in fringe). McKinnon gets some choice scenes when Carole has anxiety dreams, but she also comes off as petulant at times. Mitchell plays Joe as impulsive, and he has a showstopping sequence during his court appearance. Yet both leads often seem to be overacting. They can be a bit too much, even though the series resists leaning toward camp.
The supporting cast is what really makes the show click. Kyle MacLachlan is excellent as the practical Howard, who puts up with his wife’s passion for big cats. As things spin out of control after Joe’s threats are made public, or when Carole experiences suffering, his calming, low-key speeches are often quite moving. Likewise, Sam Keeley gives a nuanced performance as John, a man who is surprised to find love with Joe — only to feel unloved.
In support, William Fichtner steals his every scene as a down-on-his-luck producer, and Dean Winters is memorable as Joe’s no-nonsense business partner. Only Nate Wolff — as Joe’s co-husband Travis — fails to connect. Wolff never make his pathetic character sympathetic, especially during the episode Travis narrates.
Nevertheless, “Joe vs. Carole” tells its wild story nimbly, from a subplot about Joe’s failed run for governor to the way the hit was ordered and discovered. While Carole’s righteousness can be abrasive, she also has a heartfelt speech about healing. However, what really connects these two individuals is that they unapologetically are who they are. And viewers who embrace that will appreciate “Joe vs. Carole.”
JOE VS. CAROLE | Series directed by Justin Tipping | Available on Peacock March 4