Joe vs. Carole TV Review

Plot: The limited series will center on Carole Baskin, a big cat enthusiast, who learns that fellow exotic animal lover Joe “Exotic” Schreibvogel is breeding and using his big cats for profit. She sets out to shut down his venture, inciting a quickly escalating rivalry. But Carole has a checkered past of her own and when the claws come out, Joe will stop at nothing to expose what he sees as her hypocrisy. The results prove dangerous. 

Review: The sordid saga of Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic became the defacto symbol for the craziness of 2020. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the over-the-top conflict between the activist and the criminal who tried to kill her became a huge hit for Netflix and spawned a follow-up series and countless podcasts and memes. Now, almost two years since the documentary series premiered, Peacock is premiering their fictionalized retelling of the same events. Joe vs. Carole, starring SNL standout Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin and acclaimed filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell as Joe Exotic, is a wonderfully wacky adaptation of the Tiger King story with sincere performances from all involved. And yet, as good as it is, it still feels about a year too late.

Joe vs. Carole, unlike the title of the series, puts Carole Baskin at the top as the main character. If you are familiar with the documentary, you know it portrayed Joe Exotic as the protagonist and Baskin as his nemesis. Baskin came across as crazy, bizarre, and unhinged in the Netflix series and yet we still were meant to view her and Joe as equal participants in what transpired. Baskin refused to cooperate with Tiger King 2 and has received countless death threats from those who sympathized with Exotic after seeing the documentary. This series tries to reset those expectations and paints Exotic as the aggressor and Baskin as the victim. While Baskin is still portrayed as bizarre, she no longer seems unhinged or crazy.

Kate McKinnon became a standout on Saturday Night Live thanks to her ability to portray virtually any character, real or fictional, with a brazen sense of humor. McKinnon excels at playing bizarre, crazy, and unhinged, so it is quite refreshing to see her embody those elements in her portrayal of Baskin without making her look bad. Baskin has been painted as a stereotypical “cat lady” in the media, but in this series, she is just a person who wants to do right and ends up butting heads with a truly crazy person in Joe Exotic. Acting opposite Kyle McLachlan, McKinnon makes Carole Baskin into a more well-rounded character than any documentary has thus far painted her. While not absolving Baskin of any wrongdoing, Joe vs. Carole serves as vindication for her.

Casting someone to play Joe Exotic, a person almost too unbelievable to be real, was a challenge and thankfully this series pulled off a coup by landing John Cameron Mitchell. While he has been an actor since the early 1980s, Mitchell is best known as the Golden Globe-nominated writer and director of the stage musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the film adaptation. Mitchell knows funny as much as he knows drama (see his film Rabbit Hole), and here he digs into the wacky persona of Joe Exotic as much as he does the true nature of Joseph Maldonado-Passage. Seeing someone play Joe Exotic never quite feels authentic because of how much of the real man we have seen on screen before this, but Mitchell does an admirable job of never falling into spoof or parody of the real man. Instead, Mitchell stays true to the personality we have come to know while giving us a little more depth only possible through a narrative tale.

Created by Etan Frankel (Shameless, Animal Kingdom) and directed by Justin Tipping (The Chi, Dear White People) and Natalie Bailey (Run, The Unusual Suspects), Joe vs. Carole boasts a solid ensemble cast including Dean Winters, Nat Wolff, William Fichtner, and Brian Van Holt and benefits from being based on the Wondery podcast “Over My Dead Body” rather than the Netflix documentary which at least offers this a different perspective than the Exotic-centric series. Still, the fact that McKinnon left Hulu’s The Dropout and the opportunity to play Elizabeth Holmes to instead portray Baskin remains an interesting decision. I can easily see McKinnon in both roles but she does such a good job here of doing Baskin justice that it is still baffling how late this series is to the airwaves.

There is nothing inherently bad about Joe vs. Carole and it boasts two solid lead performances from Kate McKinnon and John Cameron Mitchell. But, it also doesn’t give us much that we didn’t already know. Yes, it does provide a more balanced look at Carole Baskin and somehow humanizes Joe Exotic more than the documentary did, but two years after this story became the focus of pop culture, most have likely grown tired of the story. Netflix’s documentary sequel didn’t come close to the views of the original series which makes it all the more curious as to who will watch this show. My recommendation is to check it out for McKinnon and Mitchell, but after one episode you may have seen all you need. If you stick around for the full eight episodes, you will be entertained but you won’t garner much else you didn’t already know.

Joe vs. Carole premieres on March 3rd on Peacock.


About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.