Joe vs Carole review – it’s Tiger King the drama … and it’s surprisingly sensitive | Drama


Of all the true-life dramas that have made their way to our screens lately, Joe vs Carole (Peacock/Now TV) is the most perplexing. It is hard to see why it needed to be made, given that the sheer outrageousness of the Joe Exotic/Carole Baskin big cat feud already seen in Netflix’s bombastic documentary Tiger King (though this new show is based on a podcast, rather than that series). It is also hard to see how the makers would ever be able to shape a story so far-fetched that if it were not true, it would be beyond the realms of possibility to seem in any way believable.

Yet here we are, with an eight-part drama that seems to have pulled it off. I say this cautiously, based on the first three episodes which were made available for review in advance. It is hugely entertaining, striking just the right tone, half absurd, half empathic, aware of its own limitations (those CGI wild animals would make the live-action Lion King blush) and playing up the flawed characters at the heart of it. But for all its extravagance and wildness, it may turn out to be more sensitive than the Netflix series.

Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin.
Channeling her energies into big cat rescue … Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin. Photograph: Peacock

Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon is Baskin, the woman with a troubled past who channels her energies into her big cat rescue sanctuary, all the while plotting to take down the big cat traders who appear troublingly prolific in the US. John Cameron Mitchell, of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and latterly The Good Fight, is Joe Exotic, a lost soul who finds his own kind of salvation in big cats, though his fork in the road takes him down a much darker path. Both are perfectly cast, and do well with a tough task. It would be easy for them to tip into parody, given that there is so much that lends itself to caricature about both characters. It takes a few moments to settle in (particularly for viewers aware of McKinnon’s sketch show past and skill as an impressionist) and then becomes more certain of itself.

The choice was clearly made to avoid parody at all costs. This is a sensible move, which, in another strange revelation, turns out to be a quality the story sorely needed. For all of the operatic insanity, there are tragedies at the heart of it, and by the end of episode three this has to address them. The disappearance of Baskin’s husband, Don, and the arrival of Exotic’s young, doomed husband Travis, nudge their way in. These sombre events are handled less comfortably than the raucous ones, such as a drunken seduction or a thwarted carnival show. How it deals with those tragedies as they unfold remains to be seen. Its tone so far is more suited to energetic hijinks than it is to death and sorrow.

For now though, it tries to find the humanity in the story and in the characters caught up in it. There is homophobia, domestic abuse, flashbacks to the cruelties that Exotic and Baskin endured. But there is also a sheep spray-painted to look like a tiger, a kiss with a camel and Exotic striding into a gay bar with a big cat on a chain, looking for love. Joe vs Carole is a lot to take in, as might have been expected. You can hardly call the source material understated. But it is bracing, fun and surprisingly measured. If the Tiger King saga has not lost its shine for you, there are worse ways to dip into its staggering twists and turns once more.

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