"Tiger King was, itself, a somewhat padded monstrosity with limited grasp of the difference between examination and exploitation, an attempt to cobble together a narrative from footage that started off as one thing — an exploration of big cat ownership and its ickiness — and, instead, became a sensationalistic look at some cartoonish real people," says Daniel Fienberg. "If Joe vs. Carole lacks the good fortune of timeliness, the advantage it should have had was a 30,000 foot view of this story, the ability to parse where the substance was and maybe find introspection from source material in which there was none. Unfortunately, series developer Etan Frankel falls victim to almost all of the same gawking instincts that plagued the docuseries. You can assume that at one point, Joe vs. Carole was designed to be a corrective to the doc, putting the focus on Carole and her cause without the cavalier accusations of murder that were one of several things that made the original unsavory."
John Cameron Mitchell is perfect as Joe Exotic, but Kate McKinnon is wildly miscast as Carole Baskin: As a result, Joe vs. Carole "ends up feeling like two different shows sandwiched together," says Caroline Framke, also pointing out how both Joe and Carole are physically separated, living in different states. "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," says Framke. "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." Framke adds: "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."
Joe vs. Carole feels too much like an SNL sketch: "McKinnon needn’t have perfected Baskin’s particular cadence or accent, but she might at least have captured something ineffable about Baskin," says Richard Lawson. "There are moments in Joe vs. Carole, if you really squint, when the outline of a real person hovers around the edges of McKinnon’s caricature. But too often it’s McKinnon tics and nothing else, adding even more superfluousness to a series that already feels plenty unnecessary. On the other side of the feud, it’s a different story. In a shrewd bit of casting, John Cameron Mitchell was hired to play Exotic. Mitchell is a queer icon and a musical-theater one, too, for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a sensation in the late 1990s and early 2000s that solidified Mitchell’s place in the alt-scene firmament. He’s worked plenty since, as a director and an actor, but he’s probably not the biggest name the producers of Joe vs. Carole could have landed for such a notable role. Which is why, in part, it works so well. There is simple mimicry there, yes, but Mitchell also taps into a latent Exotic spirit that finely shades the character. He’s funny and pitiable and scary and unique, a weirdo doing weird things while trying—vainly, foolishly, recklessly—to carve out a place for himself in a disdainful world."
This might be a better telling of the Tiger King story than Tiger King was, or at least a classier one with clearer morals: "This is a well-made piece of work, as so much of television is now, and it contains some great performances, particularly Mitchell as the scene-chewing king himself and Kyle MacLachlan as Carole’s even-keeled, exceptionally loving third husband, Howard," says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. "McKinnon makes a compelling Carole — more compelling, in fact, than any representation we’ve seen so far of the real woman. She’s smarter than all the men who have beaten her down and held her back."
Joe vs. 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," says Richard Roeper. "(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."
Joe vs. Carole simply doesn't contain enough fresh insight to justify its existence today — despite game performances by the stars: "Not quite a parody, not really a drama — what and why is Joe vs. Carole? At the very least, it's a showcase," says Kristen Baldwin. "MacLachlan is immensely fun to watch as Harold, whose temperate charm and dad-jokes energy serve as a pleasing complement to his frank and eccentric wife. Mitchell, looking wiry and weathered under a bleach-blonde mullet and Joe's ever-present baseball cap, channels the flashy charisma and showman's flair that helped transform a guy born Joe Schreibvogel into the local celebrity known as Joe Exotic. But the actor is even stronger in the smaller moments, unearthing the loneliness and alienation that drove Joe Exotic to build a community of misfits to live and work with him at the zoo."
Joe vs. Carole lacks bite: "On a technical level, Joe vs. Carole feels like a cheap reenactment of what audiences saw already on Netflix," says Kristen Lopez. It becomes ironic that McKinnon left Hulu’s Elizabeth Holmes series, The Dropout, to take on this project because it feels like something she’d do every Saturday night on SNL. She and John Cameron Mitchell put on the trademark costumes of their characters — her a long blonde wig and a series of caftans, while Mitchell wears an anemic mullet — to simply retell the Tiger King story. What little insight can be gleaned from flashbacks (Joe’s attempts to come out as gay; Carole’s abusive marriage, which led to her meeting Don Lewis) exist because they can be shown in a narrative rather than told."
Joe vs. Carole is surprisingly sensitive: "It is hard to see why it needed to be made, given that the sheer outrageousness of the Joe Exotic/Carole Baskin big cat feud already seen in Netflix’s bombastic documentary Tiger King (though this new show is based on a podcast, rather than that series)," says Rebecca Nicholson "It is also hard to see how the makers would ever be able to shape a story so far-fetched that if it were not true, it would be beyond the realms of possibility to seem in any way believable. Yet here we are, with an eight-part drama that seems to have pulled it off. I say this cautiously, based on the first three episodes which were made available for review in advance. It is hugely entertaining, striking just the right tone, half absurd, half empathic, aware of its own limitations (those CGI wild animals would make the live-action Lion King blush) and playing up the flawed characters at the heart of it. But for all its extravagance and wildness, it may turn out to be more sensitive than the Netflix series."
Joe vs. Carole is a lesson that all docuseries don't need scripted adaptations: “Joe vs. Carole is a grueling lesson for audiences in 'be careful what you wish for' when it comes to narrative adaptations of documentaries," says Nick Allen. "In this case, the sluggish experience for anyone who thought that the wild story of Netflix's Tiger King could only be made better by known faces telling the story. At one point, Nicolas Cage was attached to put piercings on his face and play Covid pandemic entertainment icon Joe Exotic; during a reunion special for the first season Tiger King, Joel McHale asked everyone who they wanted to play them in a movie. It seemed like an inevitability. Nearly two years to the release of Tiger King, Peacock has taken the bait, and released its own miniseries Joe vs. Carole, which is based on the 2019 Wondery podcast Joe Exotic: Tiger King. As is, however, it has little purpose than to remind you of the first time you learned about this incredible saga. The series repurposes much of what was already stated in the documentary, this time with even more artistic liberties in the storytelling. There’s just no emotional stakes in this story—not necessarily between the characters, whose famous Shakespearean drama is retold in eight 55-minute episodes, but in the reason that this show even exists."
John Cameron Mitchell admits he struggled to watch Tiger King: "There's something about him that I actually couldn't really bear to watch the whole thing at first, because it was like, everyone's behaving so badly," Mitchell tells EW, adding that he preferred the the tale as told in the Wondery podcast Over My Dead Body, which the Peacock series is based on. "The docuseries I found a bit sensational. It was certainly riveting, but it was docking. It wasn't trying to go deep."