‘Joe vs. Carole’ revives ‘Tiger King,’ a cat story that has run out of lives

While Kate McKinnon and John Cameron Mitchell give the title characters some heart in Peacock series, this tired saga should be retired with the Zoom Happy Hours.

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The founder of Big Cat Rescue (Kate McKinnon) targets exotic animal parks in “Joe vs. Carole.”

Peacock

In the early days of the pandemic, we were doing our best to stay entertained and connected, whether it was opening our windows each evening to bang pots and pans to thank health care workers and first responders; purchasing decorative face masks to show a little whimsy in very dark times; partaking in Zoom Happy Hours with co-workers or loved ones — or binge-watching and group-chatting about “Tiger King” on Netflix.

‘Joe vs. Carole’

Untitled

An eight-part series available Thursday on Peacock.

Two years later, I don’t know if anybody is still up for a Friday evening video cocktail hour, nor am I convinced there’s much of an appetite for the Peacock Original series “Joe vs. Carole,” a dramatic retelling of the “Tiger King” tale. After the original documentary series and the two underwhelming sequels, there’s something about this admittedly well-filmed and well-acted effort that feels redundant and warmed-over, as if we’re watching a group of talented actors dressing up in Halloween costumes that are two years past their relevancy date.

For those who kept “Tiger King” off their pop-culture radar or need a refresher: The true crime documentary series focused on the ugly battle between Joseph Maldonado-Passage aka “Joe Exotic,” the flamboyant operator of a big cat park in Oklahoma, and his arch-nemesis Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue, who has made it her life’s mission to shut down such zoos. The series introduced us to a variety of characters straight from the Land of Misfit Toys, including an employee who returned to work just five days after a tiger ripped their arm off, the owner of a preserve in South Carolina who had numerous relationships with female staffers, and an eccentric TV producer who spent years filming Joe Exotic, only to see all of his equipment and footage destroyed in a mysterious fire. And we’d be remiss not to mention the sad-sack “hitman” who was paid $3,000 by Joe to take out Carole in 2017. (Spoiler alert: Baskin is alive and, well. Joe’s in prison.)

Based on the “Joe Exotic: Tiger King” podcast, and with Etan Frankel (“Friday Night Lights,” “Shameless”) as showrunner, “Joe vs. Carole” does a fine job of introducing fictionalized versions of that eccentric and colorful bunch, who are adorned with just the right wigs, tattoos, piercings and outfits. With Brisbane and Queensland, Australia, doubling for Oklahoma and Florida, “Joe vs. Carole” also expertly re-creates the primary locales, including Exotic’s sprawling Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, which housed lemurs, bobcats, a camel and a number of big cats, and also served as living quarters for Joe and the various strays who would wander in looking for work. (Joe himself says he got his animal training “at the University of Google.”)

Each episode takes us through the established paces of the rivalry, which starts when Carole (Kate McKinnon) targets Joe’s zoo for allegedly cruel and illegal practices, and Joe (John Cameron Mitchell) fights back with a crazed vengeance, engaging in all sorts of slimy tricks to besmirch Carole’s name and eventually enlisting the services of a wannabe hitman to take her out.

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John Cameron Mitchell plays Joe Exotic, who fights back when Carole tries to shut down his park

Peacock

Kate McKinnon is a greatly gifted comedic actress who can be her own worst enemy when she overplays her hand (Can anybody sit through those Verizon ads without lunging for the remote?) but she delivers a true and complete performance as Carole, who at least has some self-awareness of her peculiar life. When Carole tells her loyal and supportive husband Howard (an excellent Kyle MacLachlan), “Fur Ball is THE night in South Florida activism, if they say dress like a jungle animal, you say, ‘Which one?,’ ” she does so with a sparkle, as if recognizing the absurdity of it all. John Cameron Mitchell does strong work as Joe Exotic, although it’s rather unnerving how much he sounds like Dana Carvey. (Close your eyes and listen to him speak for 20 seconds and you’ll get what I mean.)

Other standouts include the always reliable William Fichtner as the TV producer Rick Kirkham and Nat Wolff as Travis Maldonado, who found work at Joe’s zoo, became his second husband and accidentally killed himself while playing with a gun. And Marlo Kelly is so grounded and good as Barbara’s daughter Jamie Murdock that it almost seems like miscasting; this steady, reliable, whip-smart person is virtually the only person in the Extended Big Cat Universe who doesn’t seem borderline bat-bleep crazy.

“Joe v Carole” is a victim of its own timing. Even in the hands of this skilled group of actors and behind-the-scenes personnel, it just feels … unnecessary. (There’s a valiant effort to flesh out the main characters and make them more relatable as we learn of their troubled pasts, but I’m not sure I care all that much about the first time Joe had the chance to cuddle a tiger cub.)

The one thing that continues to ring true two years after Joe Exotic became a temporary celebrity: whether it’s a podcast, a true crime series or a fictional streaming series, the most sympathetic figures in the whole mess are the tigers.

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