Do you remember March 2020? People were making masks out of t-shirts, buying as much toilet paper as a prankster on Halloween, and everyone was talking about Tiger King.
It was a perfect collective experience. We all found ourselves at home with no pandemic hobbies established, and the wild saga of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin had just hit Netflix. The cultural phenomenon took off quickly, but the buzz faded fast too.
The hype did last long enough for the Tiger King-centric second season of Wondery podcast Over My Dead Body to start development as a Peacock series. But how do you make a flash-in-the-pan story into a drama starring a beloved comedy actress? Despite the challenges, Joe vs. Carole is the ideal of a dramatization: Exaggerating what exists, but letting the humor speak for itself.
Joe vs. Carole is also incredibly stylized, introducing flashbacks with quick 180° pans of the camera. Sometimes the CGI tigers are distracting, but given the critique of privately owned exotic animals inherent in the premise, they’re also a necessity.
Unlike fellow documentary-to-miniseries adaptation The Dropout, there isn’t an effort to make the plot more “TV-worthy” than the real-life events. Joe vs. Carole is driven by its two central figures, each played with a different approach that serves their personality. John Cameron Mitchell starts playing Joe Exotic as subdued but, as he realizes outrageousness is his key to fame, he morphs into what is essentially a cartoon character.
“Cartoon character” is often how Kate McKinnon’s acting style is described, but with Carole Baskin, her humor is much more akin to your weirdest aunt. “Carole like the Christmas song, Baskin like Robbins,” she says when she introduces herself. Playing off of her partner, Kyle MacLachlan’s Howard, she paints an aggressively basic woman hiding a shadier past than “maybe killing her second husband.”
Another highlight of Tiger King that Joe vs. Carole takes full advantage of is a supporting cast of kooky characters. Dean Winters, who plays dirtbags like Liz Lemon’s ex on 30 Rock, gets to dial this talent up to 11 as fellow exotic zoo owner Jeff Lowe. Travis Maldonado, Joe’s late skater husband, is played by former child star Nat Wolff.
Joe vs. Carole doesn’t go out of its way to make jokes, but there's a definite comedic quality to it thanks to how seriously it takes its larger-than-life action. There’s nothing funny about a man getting his arm mauled off, but Joe realizing the footage could be the key to becoming a reality star is hilarious. Carole receiving a death threat while on the radio is dire, but Carole’s unruffled demeanor is funny in juxtaposition.
While there are moments of soap-opera style monologues, Joe vs. Carole feels like a tribute to Tiger King directed by Baz Luhrmann. There are non-diegetic lighting cues, musical stings, and even a finale that turns a courtroom into a disco-lit stage. There’s no point in making a Tiger King series realistic — if you wanted an accurate story, you’d just watch the documentary. But what Joe vs. Carole can provide is style and melodrama, and it delivers in spades.
Joe vs. Carole premieres on Peacock March 3.
This article was originally published on