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‘Joe vs. Carole’ Review: Kate McKinnon Leads Peacock’s Surprisingly Classy Retelling of the ‘Tiger King’ Saga

McKinnon’s Carole Baskin is more the Hillary Clinton of big cat activism than the real Baskin has ever come off in previous docuseries

Remember that time, almost exactly two years ago, when pandemic lockdowns had just begun, and the scents of bleach spray and sourdough filled the air as we all united in our obsession with a mulleted, eyelinered man who bred tigers and his nemesis, an animal activist who wore animal prints and flower crowns? Well, it has been a long two years, so maybe it’s as good a time as any for a little early pandemic nostalgia, courtesy of Peacock’s eight-episode miniseries “Joe vs. Carole,” which revisits the story of the 2020 Netflix documentary “Tiger King,” this time in scripted form.

The question, of course, is whether this story warrants multiple retellings, especially in such a short period. Is the feud between animal-collecting showman Joe Exotic and big-cat rescue activist Carole Baskin really the “Macbeth” of our time? Or even the O.J. Simpson murder trial of our time?

If you watched “Tiger King” — and you probably did, especially if you’re watching “Joe vs. Carole” — you know the story beats already. We begin with Joe (played here by John Cameron Mitchell) hiring a hitman to take out Carole (Kate McKinnon), the Florida-based CEO of Big Cat Rescue. As we flash back to how we got to this point, we’re reminded that she has been crusading against Joe’s practices at his private zoo in Oklahoma, where he breeds tigers for entertainment. We also learn of the mysterious disappearance of Carole’s abusive ex-husband, Don Lewis, and the rumors that she had something to do with it, though no one was charged in the investigation. Meanwhile, Joe courts and then marries two men — John Finlay and Travis Maldonado — in a showy polyamorous ceremony; joins forces with a producer who tries to sell a reality show about the zoo; and runs for governor.

This version of the tale is, astonishingly, based on yet another telling, the Wondery podcast “Joe Exotic: Tiger King,” which came out a year before the Netflix documentary sensation. Writer-producer Etan Frankel gives the story a prestige-drama sheen here, burnished by his background on “Friday Night Lights” and “Shameless.” He uses the redemption-pic approach, familiar from the likes of “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” and “Pam & Tommy,” teasing out the genuinely empathetic backstories behind the outrageous personalities: Joe’s past as a marginalized gay man in the South and Carole’s as a woman who has endured multiple abuses at the hands of men. 

This is a well-made piece of work, as so much of television is now, and it contains some great performances, particularly Mitchell as the scene-chewing king himself and Kyle MacLachlan as Carole’s even-keeled, exceptionally loving third husband, Howard. McKinnon makes a compelling Carole — more compelling, in fact, than any representation we’ve seen so far of the real woman. She’s smarter than all the men who have beaten her down and held her back. “I am a natural businesswoman,” she says at one point in her past. “I’ve just never had a business to be the woman of.”

It’s a Carole who’s inspiring to believe in, more the Hillary Clinton of big cat activism than the real Baskin has ever come off. “Women who fight back get burned at the stake,” she says, steeling herself for battle with Joe. “And I know that.” Nat Wolff makes a heartbreaking Maldonado, Joe’s doomed lover; William Fichtner is as reliable as ever as the filmmaker who will, eventually, make Joe famous.

This might, in fact, be a better telling of the “Tiger King” story than “Tiger King” was, or at least a classier one with clearer morals. But as the third major version, it can’t add much to a narrative that was already stuffed with huge personalities and shocking revelations. It’s fun to see more of, say, Carole and Howard’s relationship, which, quirks and all, is shown as one of the most enviable marriages ever portrayed on television.

But some of the best scenes are simple nostalgia hits, like the one where Carole first comes up with her catchphrase, “Hey, all you cool cats and kittens.” And this is nostalgia, remember, for a documentary that came out two years ago. You won’t get any new insights on the questions that continue to haunt the story — namely, what happened to Carole’s ex-husband. After all, this series comes with a disclaimer stamped on the beginning of every episode: It’s “not intended to reflect on any actual person or entity.” 

What, exactly, is it intended to do, then? “It’s all just for the cameras,” Joe’s lover, John, says before their three-way wedding. “It don’t mean s—.” Though “Joe vs. Carole” wrings a bit more meaning from this oft-told tale, it’s probably time to turn the cameras off now.

“Joe vs. Carole” premieres on Peacock on March 3.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of "Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love," as well as "Seinfeldia," "When Women Invented Television" and "Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted."

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