Two long years after Netflix first dropped its “Tiger King” docuseries, the first scripted stab at retelling the wild story of warring big cat enthusiasts Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin has landed, as was inevitable. “Joe vs. Carole,” premiering March 3 on Peacock, stars John Cameron Mitchell and Kate McKinnon as Joe and Carole as they vow to take the other down. At this point — months after a Netflix follow-up to “Tiger King,” podcasts such as the one this series is based on (Wondery’s “Over My Dead Body”), and countless memes and late-night jokes later — anything purporting to shed more light on this particular saga has a high bar to clear in order to be anything less than repetitive. In this respect, “Joe vs. Carole,” despite some decent performances and effective directing from Justin Tipping, rarely justifies its existence.
As the title suggests, Etan Frankel’s “Joe vs. Carole” focuses almost entirely on the rivalry between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, though with occasional flashbacks to each of their backstories to further contextualize their extreme actions. The trouble with that structure is that with Joe Exotic in Oklahoma and Carole Baskin in Florida, the “Joe vs. Carole” fight keeps each physically separated from the other in almost every meaningful sense. Throw in the fact that one actor is a perfect fit for his character while the other seems wildly miscast, and “Joe vs. Carole” ends up feeling like two different shows sandwiched together.
The show about Baskin stars “Saturday Night Live” stalwart (and “Joe vs. Carole” executive producer) Kate McKinnon in a workplace comedy about a kooky woman married to a mild-mannered man (Kyle MacLachlan, because why not) on a mission to save big cats all across the country. In the episodes containing her pink-tinged flashbacks, Carole’s fraught past with abusive husbands and as a struggling single mom come to light, though still with the singular comedic timing that defines McKinnon’s performance in the present day timeline, too. If you don’t know anything about the real Carole Baskin, the casting of 38 year-old McKinnon might not immediately rankle as much as if you realize that she’s meant to be playing a fiftysomething mom. Either way, though, McKinnon never quite manages to sell any tone other than “offbeat” — which becomes more of an issue as the show does its best to straddle several tones at once.
The other show that is within “Joe vs. Carole” stars Mitchell as Joe Exotic, the theatrical “Tiger King” himself, as he struggles to keep his grip on his zoo empire despite Carole’s best efforts to shut him down. Mitchell, a uniquely sharp actor with a talent for portraying uniquely compelling queer men, proves perfect casting within seconds of taking the screen. (He also gets a boost from Sam Keeley’s nuanced performance as Joe’s erstwhile obsession John Finlay, which becomes even sharper in retrospect once Nat Wolff’s relatively simple Travis enters both the picture and their bed.) In lesser hands, the role of Joe Exotic could have been a blunt, cartoon disaster. In Mitchell’s, it has just much allure and menace as the requisite bombast, making it clearer why this man decided that being the star of his own show wasn’t just fun, but a defiant act.
Whether playing Joe blossoming into himself in flashbacks (awash in blue, to further differentiate them from Carole’s), Joe as the unlikely Pied Piper of the “unwanted animals” both in cages and in zookeeper uniforms, or Joe as the manic showman the world got to know in “Tiger King,” Mitchell is commanding enough to make his half of the series worth the while. Even if “Joe vs. Carole” doesn’t have much new to say about Joe, Carole, or why the two of them tangled to such catastrophic ends, Mitchell does so much to flesh out his role that you can almost — almost — forget the incredible overexposure that’s otherwise made its origin story so rancid.
All eight episodes of “Joe vs. Carole” drop Thursday, March 3 on Peacock.