Hollywood is besotted by its reflection in a truckers cap.
The same A-listers who'll soon be sashaying down the Academy Awards red carpet in Louis Vuitton and Tom Ford before rifling through their $200,000 goodies bags like perfumed dumpster-divers can often be found in a celebrated role that requires a missing incisor, an opioid addiction and a precarious rental agreement affording access to a stained mattress and a dicky gas-burner in a clapped-out caravan.
From the serious (Hillbilly Elegy), to the silly (Joe Dirt) to the genius (Raising Arizona - would a comedy about child abduction even get the green light these days?), there is a creative gold mine to be found between those slippery rungs of the socio-economic ladder and everyone from Dickens to Trump have been cashing in on this concept for centuries.
The trick is exploitation, or rather, how to avoid it. It's one thing to find the humanity somewhere under all those tramp stamps, it's another to poke fun at trailer trash just for the sake of it.
With this cultural tightrope in mind, we must ask ourselves, has Joe Exotic now been so thoroughly exploited, we can only feel sorry for the former zookeeper, whose incarceration cannot be viewed without a sense of irony considering he built a career out of putting pathetic creatures behind bars?
Moreover, when it comes to the Tiger King, has the big cat bolted and anyone revisiting the story risks being pilloried for flogging a dead liger?
Streaming on Stan from March 4, new series Joe vs Carole is running just this gauntlet and won't emerge from its airing without, at the very least, accusations of tardiness or, at the worst, convictions of irrelevancy.
Which is all a bit of a pity because the Peacock original does what it sets out to do very well, adding dramatic flair and scripted cogency to a real-life story so bizarre and captivating it would've been a crime not to retouch its mascara, stitch a few extra sequins to its shirt and send it out for another mall-to-mall roadshow in some form or another.
Indeed, viewers are advised at the beginning of each episode: "While this program is based on real events, certain parts have been fictionalised solely for dramatic purposes and are not intended to reflect on any actual person or entity".
So, to recap on those real events: a couple of years ago, when COVID confined half the planet to a fugue state of binge-streaming, Netflix had a monster truck hit on its hands with Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a reality TV take on a long-running feud between a man called Joseph Maldonado-Passage (ne Schreibvogel, aka Joe Exotic) who ran a zoo in Oklahoma, and a woman called Carole Baskin (nee Stairs Jones, formerly known as Carole Murdock), who runs an animal shelter in Florida. So acrimonious did the legal and online battles become, Exotic ended up being found guilty of hiring a hitman to kill Baskin and was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Amid all this, Baskin was fending off rumours she killed her second husband, who went missing in 1997.
These facts were documented in the local press years before Netflix came sniffing around and Joe vs Carole is based on a Wondery podcast called Over My Dead Body, which returns us to the question, why rehash the story at all given the saturation coverage?
Because Hollywood is besotted by its reflection in a truckers cap.
Under that cap in Joe vs Carole is John Cameron Mitchell, who, while not quite nailing Exotic's mannerisms and twang, manages to find a vulnerability and complexity in his subject - a gay, redneck, polyamorist and shrewd businessman who surrounds himself with strays of various species - which, in lesser hands, could have easily devolved into caricature. Conversely, gifted comedian and mimic Kate McKinnon has Baskin's ticks and voice down to a tee, but her performance doesn't quite measure up to that of her co-star's.
And perhaps that's the trouble with this iteration of the Tiger King tale, it never really measures up to the real thing. Sure, we get to revisit this bonkers time and place with the benefit of competent players (Kyle MacLachlan is an understated standout as Howard Baskin), a great soundtrack (Harry Nilsson, Roy Orbison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ABBA, Beethoven, Joy Division), a narrative arc and a snappy script ("What's got your panties in a pucker?") but we enjoy all these added extras while constantly cross-referencing an ersatz version with its original.
On top of this, the aesthetics of what is surely an "only in America" story feel weirdly familiar. Our discombobulation makes sense when we realise Joe vs Carole wasn't filmed in Oklahoma or Florida, but Queensland, explaining a United States replete with Colorbond roofing, aluminium sliding doors and David Wenham.
All this is not to say zealots of a certain stripe won't find much to enjoy while watching yet another reimagining of the Tiger King legend, even though poor timing destines it to be filed away with all those other forgotten tales from the trailer park - a place that goes in and out of fashion yet shall ever remain Hollywood's reliable boneyard.
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