The names Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin have begun to feel like relics of a bygone era. The debut of Netflix’s documentary series “Tiger King” debuted nearly the same day the world shut down in the wake of the global pandemic in March 2020, leaving us questing for something, anything, to distract us from what lurked outside our door.
We found (what passes for) comfort in the outrageous story of a “gay, gun-carrying, redneck with a mullet” named Joe Exotic, an Oklahoma zoo owner, and his feud that devolved into a murder-for-hire plot against fellow (and equally kooky) big-cat enthusiast Carole Baskin. “Tiger King” felt like a global watch event with how much everyone discussed it on social media. Almost as quickly, two dueling projects focusing on Exotic and Baskin were announced: one set to star Nicolas Cage in the title role for CBS and the other, for NBC’s streaming service Peacock, would have John Cameron Mitchell and “SNL” star Kate McKinnon.
The latter, dubbed “Joe vs. Carole,” made it out of the gate first and if the hope is that audiences will flock to Peacock — which has yet to contain a breakout series like its competitors — to watch this, they bet on the wrong cat. It’s not that the series isn’t good, though it really isn’t. It’s that with the abundant oversaturation of “Tiger King” having come and gone, what more can be done? Even Netflix’s own attempts to continue the spread, with the release of a makeshift second season of “Tiger King,” reveled in so much Trump-era politics and misogyny that it barely made a dent on the collective consciousness.
On a technical level, “Joe vs. Carole” feels like a cheap reenactment of what audiences saw already on Netflix. It becomes ironic that McKinnon left Hulu’s Elizabeth Holmes series, “The Dropout,” to take on this project because it feels like something she’d do every Saturday night on “SNL.” She and John Cameron Mitchell put on the trademark costumes of their characters — her a long blonde wig and a series of caftans, while Mitchell wears an anemic mullet — to simply retell the “Tiger King” story. What little insight can be gleaned from flashbacks (Joe’s attempts to come out as gay; Carole’s abusive marriage, which led to her meeting Don Lewis) exist because they can be shown in a narrative rather than told.
The current nostalgia bomb we’re seeing in television — from “Joe vs. Carole” to “The Dropout” and “Pam & Tommy” — aims to give audiences a story they thought they knew and show how they were wrong, but that’s been the tone of TV movies ripped from the headlines for decades. Television has always cannibalized murders, from Amy Fisher to the Manson killings, for a bizarre blending of entertainment and documentation.
But watching “Joe vs. Carole” now feels passé. At this point we’ve had two series, numerous articles, and a podcast to tell anyone, in whichever format they’d like, about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. Maybe it’s because we live on COVID time, or because the initial rush of “Tiger King” discussion felt so sweeping, but “Joe vs. Carole” is like watching the station after the train has left.
That sense of immediacy wasn’t necessarily felt with ripped-from-the-headlines TV of the past. Without cable or the internet, and only a few networks, TV had a much slower metabolism. The 1976 CBS miniseries “Helter Skelter,” depicting the capturing Charles Manson and the subsequent trial, came out seven years after the Tate/LaBianca killings, was a massive hit; it received rave reviews and three Emmy nominations. (It also lost money when sponsors declined to support it; some cities followed suit or gave it a late-night slot.) A year after the series, Manson cult member Leslie Van Houten was resentenced and sent to prison.
So if there’s nothing immediate about telling this story, maybe there’s a desire to tell us something new? As “Tiger King 2” suggested, there’s little desire to step back from the story’s madness. When Season 1 of “Tiger King” debuted, it took less than a month for major outlets to criticize the show’s depiction of animal abuse, sexual exploitation, and an on-camera suicide. The arrival of Season 2 saw additional critiques, mainly about how it had no reason to exist considering nothing had changed about the characters involved. Joe Exotic was still in jail and Carole Baskin became a media target as both a maligned woman and a possible murderer.
It’s hard to mine additional drama from a story that felt ridiculous. The series never questions Joe Exotic’s grooming and manipulation of the men in his life. And while Carole Baskin receives sympathy as a woman who wanted to work but found herself trapped in a series of domestic cages, McKinnon’s performance is so over-the-top that it’s played for laughs. The series continues to position these two people as the same when they aren’t. In an era where Many of TV’s nostalgic reevaluations focus on showing how their female characters are perceived with misogyny; “Joe vs. Carole” does not.
Perhaps in a decade or two we can revisit this story and discuss what it was really about. How Joe Exotic seemed to play to a group of people we now question as domestic terrorists. Or how the media continues to love to demonize a woman as often as it praises her good intentions. Maybe we’ll finally get to talking about the rampant animal abuse that’s allowed to be presented, in any context, with series like this. Or maybe it will just remind of us a time when we all sat inside our houses watching a a “gay, gun-carrying, redneck with a mullet” for our own entertainment.
“Joe vs. Carole” is streaming weekly on Peacock.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.