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TV review: 'Joe vs. Carole' is surprisingly sympathetic to 'Tiger King'

1/5
Kate McKinnon plays Carole Baskin in "Joe vs. Carole." Photo courtesy of Peacock
Kate McKinnon plays Carole Baskin in "Joe vs. Carole." Photo courtesy of Peacock

LOS ANGELES, March 2 (UPI) -- Between Tiger King, its media savvy subjects and many spinoff shows, there's no new information about Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic. What Joe vs. Carole, premiering Thursday on Peacock, offers is sympathetic portrayals, perhaps more sympathetic than the subjects themselves have presented.

Joe vs. Carole begins when the Fish and Wildlife department warns Baskin (Kate McKinnon) that Exotic (John Cameron Mitchell) has hired a hitman to kill her. This is the crime for which the real Joe Exotic is serving a prison sentence.

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Through flashbacks and cross-cutting between Baskin and Exotic's stories, the series shows Baskin's operation to find and catch animal abusers. She shut down Exotic's traveling tiger petting show by alerting local fairs, so he was unbookable.

Exotic retaliated by launching web videos accusing Baskin of feeding her missing husband, Don Lewis, to her tigers. Exotic attempted to confront Baskin in person, too.

Early episodes appear sympathetic to Baskin. She has a righteous cause, and does the detective legwork to connect multiple animal shows to Exotic.

Baskin is no saint, though. She tricks people into interning for her for free, and then fires them after they've committed years to her.

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Later episodes flash back to Baskin's first abusive marriage, and how she met Lewis (David Wenham). Lewis dismisses her businesses, and then steals her money when they succeed.

But, Joe vs. Carole appears most sympathetic to Exotic. Flashbacks show how painful being closeted was to him, and a suicide attempt landed him in rehab.

Even while operating his sketchy zoos, Exotic appears sincere when offering desperate people like Travis Maldonado (Nat Wolff) a place to work. It may be misguided work, but he appears sincere about giving people an opportunity.

The portrayals of these real-life personalities vary drastically. McKinnon's Baskin feels like a Saturday Night Live impression, complete with mannerisms she uses when she plays Hillary Clinton.

Mitchell nails Exotic's flamboyant personality much more closely, and imbues him with more humanity in vulnerable moments. Joe vs. Carole calls him out for mistreating animals, too, but it's not purely vilifying him.

Comic relief reduces jokes to minor potshots. Perhaps that's all Baskin and Exotic were ever capable of, but comparing one's enemy's mouth to a butthole and Exotic claiming "I don't talk funny" aren't exactly belly laughs.

Two years after the Tiger King phenomenon may ultimately be too little, too late. Or too much, rather, as this story is so overexposed, and much of Joe vs. Carole feels redundant.

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Yet, as every other recent scandal gets its own streaming limited series, Joe vs. Carole can offer more empathy for its subjects. They may be their own worst enemies when they go in front of cameras, but these actors and filmmakers can see their souls.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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