Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
In March 2020, during the on-set of the COVID-19 pandemic and during the lock-down that kept most people trapped in their homes, Netflix released the hit series Tiger King. It introduced the world to former zookeeper and convicted felon, Joe Exotic who was arrested two years prior. Tiger King was a huge success and became an internet phenomenon. It was even nominated for six Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. A lot of news organizations or other media companies picked up on the story and ran with it, even doing their own versions of it. The Wondery podcast network even produced a podcast on Joe Exotic’s case. That podcast is the basis of this series. I never listened to the podcast, so my only reference point is the Netflix version.
John Cameron Mitchell (Shrill and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) stars as Joe Exotic, whose birth name was Joseph Schreibvogel. Joe owned and operated the G.W. Zoo in Wynewood, Oklahoma, which is about a hour south of Oklahoma City and about two hours north of Dallas, Texas. Joe went to school as a teenager in Texas and even worked as a police officer there, just outside Dallas. In 2018, Joe was arrested for a murder-for-hire scheme. He was convicted of it the next year. The series depicts the events that led up to that arrest and conviction. It also flashes back and depicts pivotal moments that formed the man referred to as a “gun-toting, animal-loving, mullet-wearing” gay, Republican, internet star.
Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live) also stars as Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit sanctuary near Tampa, Florida. She believes that Joe Exotic is mistreating the animals at his zoo. She believes the conditions at Joe’s zoo are inhumane and she wants his abuses to stop. She becomes obsessed with shutting him and other animal abusers down. She specifically targets Joe and even goes to greater lengths, such as appealing to Congress. This of course makes Joe angry, so the two of them get into a battle. Carole takes legal actions, whereas Joe engages mostly in an online media war, smearing and destroying Carole’s reputation, mainly by accusing her of killing her ex-husband.
Ironically, the war between Joe and Carole is the least interesting thing about this show. Because of the Netflix version, there’s nothing left to discover in terms of the steps that led to Joe’s arrest for hiring someone to kill Carole. The evidence in the Netflix version is pretty clear and Joe’s feelings or thoughts about Carole were never opaque. This series, created by Etan Frankel (Animal Kingdom and Friday Night Lights), doesn’t provide any additional insight in that regard. If nothing else, this series does provide an acting vehicle for McKinnon and particularly Mitchell.
Kyle MacLachlan (Desperate Housewives and Twin Peaks) co-stars as Howard Baskin, the husband to Carole. His presence is definitely there in the Netflix version. I suppose if there are any revelations to Frankel’s series, it’s the relationship between Howard and Carole. That dynamic is a very interesting and warm one. The strength and beauty of their marriage and partnership are very compelling. It was nice to see and also stands as a stark contrast to the other relationships depicted in this show.
Sam Keeley (In the Heart of the Sea and What Richard Did) also co-stars as John Finlay, a love interest to Joe. Nat Wolff (Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars) plays Travis Maldonado, another love interest to Joe. Both John and Travis are young men that Joe hired to work at the zoo. According to the Netflix version, both John and Travis are straight. Yet, Joe Exotic is gay, so the Netflix series presented what seemed like a bit of a conundrum. Why were John and Travis having a gay relationship with Joe if they weren’t gay?
The Netflix series offered a possible answer, but I was curious how Frankel’s series would address this query and help us to understand why these relationships even happened. It’s not to say that they needed an explanation. Sexuality isn’t something that needs to be explained. I applaud the idea that these men can have these intimate and even sexual relationships and it not be questioned or looked askant or even viewed as unacceptable. For the most part, homophobia isn’t even an object in either this or the Netflix series, which is a positive step in terms of LGBTQ representation.
However, the Netflix series does go out of its way to identify John and Travis as heterosexual. At one point in this series, the characters call their relationship with Joe, which was a polyamorous one, a threesome in fact, as being “weird.” That being the case, a conversation or some kind of insight as to why these men would engage intimately and sexually with Joe felt like it needed to be explored. That exploration doesn’t happen here. The Netflix series talked about John and Travis’ various levels of drug use or addiction, such as with crystal meth, and that being a possible factor in John and Travis’ relationship to Joe. Yet, that drug aspect is really overlooked here. Later, Joe marries Dillon Passage, played by Tom Rodgers. Dillon is an out-and-out gay man who was starstruck by Joe, so no mystery there. Unfortunately, I still felt cheated in most of this series’ depiction of Joe’s love interests.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 8 eps.
Available on Peacock.