Kidding seemed to have the world on its shoulders. Created by Dave Holstein (Weeds) and the first collaboration between executive producer/director Michel Gondry and star Jim Carrey since their acclaimed work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, it seemed as if it could instantly become the perfect vehicle for Carrey’s newfound rise to pop-culture dominance after a few years steering away from the limelight. When the series was announced, Carrey was in the midst of what many (wrongly) thought to be some form of breakdown, his Netflix documentary Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond was being released, and the actor seemed to have taken on an omniscient and mythic presence whenever he was seen. He spoke often about the vapidity of life, and continuously questioned the philosophies of any television host that dared to still see him as the guy who pulled faces and made everybody chuckle. It continued as his passion for fine art became public, and many began to realise that Jim had just started to make peace with himself away from the pop-culture of Hollywood and the mainstream. The man’s always been a terrific actor deep down, when he wasn’t making us laugh in Ace Ventura he was breaking us down in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, but for many Eternal Sunshine stood out as his opus, partly due to director Michel Gondry’s understanding of the man himself.
“You’re beautiful. Don’t get better. Because you’re broken” – Michel Gondry on meeting Jim Carrey for the first time.
Many people (myself included) soon became worried that Kidding then represented a return to Carrey being “broken”, both maybe on screen and off. Whilst I’d argue that it’s not the case off screen (Carrey seems to be doing remarkably well, both as a political artist and actor now), I’d say that Jeff ‘Mr Pickles’ Piccirillo might be the most damaged person the actor’s brought to life. The show, an imaginative comedy-drama, centers around Jeff, a Mr. Rogers-esque children’s television personality who presents ‘Mr Pickles Puppet Time’. Him and his wife Jill (Judy Greer – 2018’s Halloween) have recently split up after the death of one of their twin sons (both played by Cole Allen) in a car accident, and whilst Jeff is hopeful that their relationship will resume at some point, Jill has already moved on in the form of Peter (Justin Kirk) as Jeff refuses to accept the death of their son by repressing his emotions and not talking about anything.
But here’s the thing. On ‘Puppet Time’, Jeff is a delightfully wholesome and kind soul who wants to help everyone he possibly can and be the best role model possible yet when the camera stop rolling, the persona doesn’t stop. Jeff IS Mr. Pickles by nature. He’s not used to ‘bad’ emotions like anger and detests swearing (“please don’t use a bad word when you can use a good one”). He often neglects his son Will’s desperate attempts for attention by opting to spout cherry-picked life lessons instead of actually listening to him, believing that to be the best option. He never took time off after Phil’s death and even helps the man who caused the accident financially behind Jill’s back purely because he was disabled in the collision. He’s offensively well-meaning and altruistic, but as the series begins we’re shown that small cracks are beginning to appear in Jeff’s psyche. Ones that may have tragic and even mortal consequences down the line, as he finally begins to embrace all the negativity that has been building up inside of him throughout his years.
Of course having his cold controlling father Seb (Frank Langella – Frost/Nixon) constantly surrounding him at work as the executive producer of ‘Puppet Time’ doesn’t help. Not only that but the head puppet maker of the show is none other than his sister Deirdre ‘Dee’ Piccirillo (Catherine Keener – Get Out). As Jeff’s world seems to break down around him, it prompts the others to look into their own problems too. Jeff is a catalyst for the Piccirillo family, the center of both their emotions and their financial stability thanks to his world-famous and recognised enterprise. If he breaks down then the show does, and so on fall the dominoes until every last primary character within the show is left suffering. That’s a hell of a lot of responsibility on one man.
“You are not a real person. You’re a man in a box. People see a trusted brand. No one sees a man” – Seb Piccirillo.
All this responsibility isn’t forced upon Jeff intentionally however, but the show makes it clear that he is the hinge on which everyone’s lives dangle. Throughout the first half of the show there are clear, defined reasons behind Jeff’s lashing out. He catches Will smoking marijuana, he learns of Jill’s budding relationship with Peter, Seb won’t let him air an episode of ‘Puppet Time’ about mortality. During my initial weekly viewings of the show I found it struggling to find its footing when there were clear reactionary points for Jeff. The premise of the show, whilst fully open for comedic aspects just as much as dramatic, often felt as if one needed to come at the sacrifice of the other. Almost every episode of the season features a fantastic surreal cold open sequence, yet the bulk of the first five episodes at times felt like it didn’t fully commit to a comfortable tone. It’s definitely more of a script issue than anything; the show had a different credited writer every single episode so it’s more likely a case of individual perspective than anything else, but it’s a shame when the talent both in front and behind the camera feels like it’s not being used to its full potential.
For example, Gondry directs six of the ten episodes within the season, yet the first two feature little-to-none of his visual flair and panache. The quirkiness of much of the visuals gels perfectly with the stilted and brash nature of much of the show’s humour. It’s an adult’s version of the humour presented within ‘Mr Pickles Puppet Time’ – characters act like morons because they feel like it, Will uses a beehive to get back at some bullies, a Japanese actor playing a foreign Mr. Pickles accidentally uses the phrase ‘allahu-akbar’ after being taught it by Jeff. These isolated incidents are all brilliantly childish and joyful moments of humour that only get more and more impactful as the show goes on. After I finished the season finale for the first time, I did some research and watched the first five episodes again for clarity. I know sometimes people believe that repeat viewings shouldn’t add to a film/show’s effect but for me it’s a huge part of what makes me love the medium. Something strange happened as I sat down to watch those five half-hour episodes I don’t remember being all-too positive about, I found myself noticing foreshadowing images and a gradual ramping-up of surrealism that mirrored Jeff’s mental state. Not only that, but the title sequences, charming handmade paper cut out animations, become more and more intricate as the series goes on. The show, like the primary characters, follows the same emotional journey as Jeff does. Whilst his mental state seems to deteriorate the show strengthens in quality.
Carrey of course is the center of attention here. His Jeff Pickles seems disappointingly subdued at first, sticking to his guns with the Mr. Rogers persona dutifully. Within the first episode in particular his spats of anger tend to come across more like the winging of a young toddler, though of course that’s how Jeff would react – he’s not used to the negative emotions he’s feeling. Those looking for a fair dose of slapstick perfection are bound to be disappointed too, as it’s only really when Jeff’s taking on the persona within episodes of ‘Puppet Time’ when flashbacks of his old manic energy appear. It’s often difficult to wonder why Carrey himself didn’t go into such a profession. But this is far from a bad thing, instead it portrays Jeff as a more realistic version of Carrey’s own real-life alter-ego. Whilst he’s being friendly old Jeff his eyes slowly begin to glaze over with a tinge of boredom, and it’s only when he dares to go over to the dark side when they seem to come alive again. Throughout the show he smashes objects, taunts people, commits promiscuous sexual activity and even murders famed Olympic ice-skater Tara Lipinski’s pet parrot and it’s in these moments where Carrey’s allowed to let loose. A particularly explosive freak out within his dad’s office in ‘Kintsugi’ feels cathartic for Jeff, whilst ushering in one of the show’s best images too.
It’s not just Carrey that gets to shine here either. Newcomer Cole Allen as both Phil (deceased) and Will (living) Piccirillo has a remarkable chemistry with his on-screen father. The ability to differentiate between the identical twins is a must, and Allen makes it look easy whilst maintaining the cryptic actions of a hormonal teenager awkwardly discovering himself. Frank Langella’s Seb similarly shares the same chemistry, though not with Jeff within the show. Instead his presence acts like a blanket over the entire family, and whilst he’s initially cold and calculating, it’s the later episodes’ small snippets of Seb’s wife’s departure that usher in how much the character really has to deal with. Despite having to make the calculated decisions surrounding the show and associated enterprise, he still manages to listen to both Will and Maddy (Juliet Morris – Dee’s young daughter) more than their parents. His character arguably goes through the best arc besides Jeff’s within the season, and it’s interesting to see if this upward spiral of compassion will continue into the show’s (now) assured second season.
“Everybody wants to feel like a good parent. Nobody wants to act like one” – Seb Piccirillo.
However, the championing of these roles highlights one of the show’s biggest problems in its female cast. Judy Greer has proven time and time again to be one of the most consistent character actors currently working yet, aside from a few speeches with Jeff is limited to inconsequential screen time throughout the season. Catherine Keener’s Dee is treated similarly, though her failing marriage to an obviously gay husband in the form of Scott (Bernard White) gives her some much needed development as the series progresses. Dee slowly begins to unwind throughout the show, neglecting her daughter and hiding secrets that prove she just might be as confused as her brother. Her delightful relationship with the Japanese Mr. Pickles-san (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is a particular highlight, as she misinterprets his genuine kindness for emotion affection and perhaps takes their relationship too far. This results in a lewd shadow-puppet show and one of the series’ best visual gags, another example of the latter-half of the season’s confidence to embrace the amalgamation of bleak emotional drama and quirky black comedy. Other smaller female roles such as Vivian (Ginger Gonzaga), a terminal cancer patient who Jeff falls deeply in love with, are often given better development than Jill as the show’s female lead which is a shame. That being said, where the season ends leaves a lot of wiggle room for both Greer and Keener to pick up the mantle.
With the echoes of Mr. Rogers and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse being so apparent, Kidding also needs to dive fully into the world of ‘Mr Pickles Puppet Time’ and I’m so glad it does. Every snippet of the show we see is utterly charming and inventive, and is the main visual thrust behind many of the show’s best moments. Different mediums combine to craft a delightfully whimsical and endearing world, and Jeff’s soothing songs never feel awkward thanks to the fully committed performance from Carrey. Then of course there’s the characters themselves, and they’re delightful. Each one of them charming in their own right. From ‘Oops’ to ‘Mr Peanut Butter and Jelly’, each of them are vividly brought to life on screen and make me pine for the days of Jim Henson and his wholesome magic. One particular sequence in ‘The Cookie’ during the reveal of the ‘Viva Las Pages’ puppet based on Jeff’s girlfriend Vivian is so utterly brilliant that it had me beaming for the rest of my day. Jeff’s sings about continuing Vivian’s legacy on his show even if her illness catches up with her, and it’s one of a handful of moments needed within the bleakness that reminds us that deep down Jeff is actually a good person. Holstein and Gondry have both expressed interest in producing an entire episode of ‘Puppet Time’ in the future of the show, and I’d be completely up for it.
The show’s third episode ‘Every Pain Needs a Name’ produced a viral behind-the-scenes video of the making of a brilliant montage sequence, focusing around a former drug addict Shaina (Riki Lindhome) pulling her life together over time under the watchful eye of Mr. Pickles from her television set. Director Jake Schreier produced the first of the show’s many jaw-dropping sequences, and you can’t help but feel as if Michel Gondry and fellow series director Minkie Spiro felt a little jealous of his visual tenacity. Whilst Gondry is restrained for the first two of his episodes, his remaining ones feature the same inventiveness as Eternal Sunshine (though still not fully at that level of surreal). These moments, however brief, are often used to their full effect with personifying the deteriorating states of the characters on screen and it’s one of the show’s biggest strengths.
“You can feel anything at all, anything at all. You can feel it. Happy, sad, big or very small, anything at all is fine. It’s you who is doing the feeling, and that makes it okay.” – TV’s Mr. Pickles.
Kidding isn’t the show that many hopefuls were expecting. It’s real-life, difficult problems and emotions seen through the eyes of a children’s television show. It requires your attention to fulfill its full creative potential because of that, and therefore is only as good as the time you’re willing to put in. After a minor stumble at the start of the season, the show ends its first year in unreasonably strong health, and could become the live-action equivalent of Bojack Horseman in terms of emotional maturity and the portrayal of mental illness within a comedic setting. Welcome back Jim, we’ve missed you.