It’s called Joe vs. Carole, but it should’ve been called Dumb vs. Dumber. The idea, of course, was to make a spoof of Tiger King and its ridiculously stupid characters, featured in Netflix’s hit show and a couple other docs, hundreds of think pieces and millions of Tweets.
But like Joe Exotic’s zoo, this thing goes up in flames. Seduced by a $20 million budget and the chance to recreate the most-watched show on television, Justin Tipping (Nani, Swimming in the Air) soon lost perspective. It makes you wonder why he didn’t just choose another project, rather than subjecting us to this breathtakingly bad and out-of-touch mini-series, seemingly written by people who don’t understand the concept of pop culture. It barely pops at all.
It’s not like anyone was asking for a Tiger King adaptation, but here we are, two years after the docuseries hit airwaves. The new installment kicks off with Carole Baskin (Kate McKinnon) getting ready for her day when two agents knock on her door. Baskin runs a wildlife sanctuary called Big Cat Rescue, though these agents aren’t here for an inspection or to check out one of her tigers. Instead, they are here to warn her that a gun-toting, man-kissing, mullet-wearing cowboy named Joe Exotic (John Cameron Mitchell) has sent a hitman to kill her.
“How did it come to this?” sighs Carole. One flashback later, we get the answer. The battle between zookeeper Joe and animal rights activist Carole began in 2009, when she started an email campaign to pressure businesses to stop hosting cub-petting events. Their feud spiraled out of control when Joe spread rumors about Carole’s dead husband, who was likely killed by Carole. Or maybe he just disappeared? Either way, fans of the Netflix show – or the Wondery podcast, which this is partly based on – will be able to cross off every scene like a grocery list. Salad? Check. Joe marrying two of his co-workers? Check. Joe making videos about Carole’s dead husband? Check. We’ve seen it all before, just without the crass mockery.
It seems Tipping has his sights set on being the next Christopher Guest, the British satirist behind Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. Perhaps it requires a fictional story to truly poke fun at Middle America, and Guffman managed to pull it off because no one was safe. In Joe vs. Carole, Tipping errs on the side of safe, especially with his two leads. He ends up neutering the whole affair, not just with parody, but with an emphasis on the backstory of people who aren’t worth our sympathy. Are we supposed to care for these murderous, reprehensible creatures? It’s hard to tell when every other scene is a flashback to Joe fighting for his rights as a gay man, or Carole tolerating her abusive husband.
With Joe vs. Carole, Tipping wants to have his cake and eat it too, attempting to craft “biting” satire without teeth, that patronizes but refuses to offend, and stumbles over itself trying to be both humane and humiliating. You can’t do both at the same time, as he tries here. He bogs down his talented cast with a bewildering tone, tired jokes and embarrassing dialogue. This one, well, it’s far from purr-fect.