The first season of Dave Holstein’s comedy-drama Kidding seemed to arrive at the perfect time. Jim Carrey was coming hot off the back of a prolonged hiatus and a reunion between him and executive producer Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) led many to believe that we were getting more of the raw, emotional performance we’re familiar with from the duo . The premise was already there after all. Mr. Rogers-esque children’s TV icon Jeff ‘Mr. Pickles’ Piccirillo (Carrey) has earned the love of children the world over, but his altruistic and quaint existence outside of television begins to come crumbling down after the death of one of his twin sons and his wife Jill (Judy Greer) leaves him. It’s a concept that could dwell in ceaseless misery , and whilst it laid some brilliant groundwork the show’s debut struggled occasionally with balancing its comedy and tragedy.
“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.” – Jeff ‘Pickles’ Piccirillo.
I’m more than happy to say that in season two Kidding transforms into one of the most touching and brilliant shows currently on television. From the season opener ‘The Cleanest Liver in Columbus, Ohio’ it’s clear that the relationship between its dark, at times sadistic, humour and melancholic agony is more defined. Scenes and speeches weave in and out of genre, bypassing believability at points yet confidently bring you along for the ride like you’re watching an episode of ‘Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time’.
After hitting Jill’s new boyfriend Peter (Justin Kirk) with his car, Jeff donates some of his liver to his hospitalised rival, whilst his sister Deirdre (Catherine Keener) is placed in charge of bringing ‘Puppet Time’ back on the air after the firing of their dad Seb (Frank Langella). There’s more of a co-lead aspect to the show within this season, and Keener’s Deirdre ‘Dee’ Piccirillo is given a lot of heavy lifting with some difficult material. Every character in Kidding is deeply flawed, but Dee’s is the most apparent from the outside. Her struggles to match the example led by her overbearing father is one of many uphill battles the show’s writers tackle with finesse.
Much like another recent acclaimed series (BoJack Horseman), Kidding has managed to create a world of fantasy and miniscule whimsy that feeds into the fears and wants of those who inhabit it. Jeff’s idealistic intentions behind a WiFi-enabled doll that allows him to speak to children across the globe seems benevolent, but the fallout and ramifications are clear to those of us who are inclined to cynicism. That’s not to say Jeff hasn’t changed of course, far from it. There’s an acceptance of his fallibility this season that Jim Carrey embodies in the show’s lighter moments. He partakes in recreational drugs, is more open within his relationships and even lets loose some mild language at points. Whereas season one felt like the rage inside him was bubbling to the surface, season two offers the cooldown and recuperation.
“My research shows that children who enjoy this toy are 43% more likely to eat a dick.” – Seb Piccirillo.
Frank Langella’s Seb continues to offer some of the driest wit this side of the Sahara, and the realisation that he realises there’s not much for him to do outside of his work is tantalisingly realised towards the second half of the season. Justin Kirk gets an enlarged sidekick role as him and Jeff buddy-up and become ‘liver brothers’ in what can only be described as the bromance with the worst foundation in history. ‘I Wonder What Grass Tastes Like’ features some of the series’ best physical comedy, and offers the jovial breakthrough needed for when truths are revealed and marriages come to an end. Whilst one minute you can marvel at the Puppet Time cast being used to advertised Plan B pills on television, the next you’ll be misty-eyed at the realisation of a mental illness. Kidding introduces locations and concepts at just the right time in innocuous ways, letting them come into play naturally throughout the season. A nostalgia center for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s (run by a notably terrific performance from Tyler, the Creator) is woven into the show without warning and offers one of the most bittersweet moments I’ve seen in years.
But then, the entire cast all seems to be at the top of their game. Cole Allen’s Will acts as the thematic crutch of the second half of the season, curiously pondering over the existence of magic and time-travel in a way that develops unexpectedly. Juliet Morris’ Maddy is a scene-stealing delight and works as the human embodiment of Kidding’s surrealist overtones. Even Ariana Grande is utilised as a token celebrity cameo in a way that feels neither forced nor cynical. The only disappointment is that Judy Greer’s Jill is side-lined for most of the season, kept to minimal interactions with the primary cast outside of prolonged disappointment and frustration. The temporary standstill in Jill’s life makes her the biggest presentation of reality, countering the manic dream-like escapism of episodes like ‘Up, Down and Everything In Between’ which is set entirely in Jeff’s head whilst he’s having surgery.
My biggest wish for the show was for Jeff’s Sesame Street-like show to be more involved, and not only do his puppets get more screen time to shine, but Michel Gondry returns to direct ‘Episode 3101’ – an entire episode in the children’s show format. Not only does this allow for more wonderful DIY-style visuals (matching the delightful title cards) but it presents a leap forward thematically. As Jeff is slowly realising the difference between reality and Puppet Time, he has to start making difficult decisions and even the episode order represents that. Through extended flashback sequences we’re shown the origins of Jeff and Dee’s closeness stemming from, of all places, the Challenger disaster. An extended look and Jill and Jeff throughout season closer ‘The Puppet Dalai Lama’ not only acts as a self-contained love story but a simultaneous message of hope and fear. The way these characters react to change defines them.
“This morning I saw television kill the dreams of children all over the world, what if I use that same power to heal them?” – Young Jeff ‘Pickles’ Piccirillo.
Whilst the bright colours and sexual innuendo hook your attention, it’s the depth of emotion that leaves a lasting impression. Season one’s look at such issues through a child-like gaze split each emotion into an opposing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feeling, but season two’s message seems to be a resounding answer that neither is really correct. Carrey’s heartbreak and loss is remarkable, to the point where you begin to take for granted how much sadness he’s able to convey with a single glance.
Alongside Gondry, directors Jake Schreier, Bert & Bertie and Kimberly Peirce each leave their visual mark on the show. Whether that be bombastic musical numbers, unnerving POV tracking shots or more time-bending single-takes, everything across the production and art department has been turned up to 11. Puppet Time’s infectious energy bleeds into reality more than once, and it makes the world of Kidding all the more joyous to be a part of. Unfortunately however, such prestigious moments and standout episodes like ‘Episode 3101’ and ‘The Nightingale Pledge’ reduce the impact of some of the other instalments. Airing in double bills definitely helped the show to maintain its urgency, but even in these quieter moments we’re treated to scenarios like the funeral of a Filipino television personality onboard a sea cruiser – it’s not every day you see something like that.
“Homes don’t break. They change. Like people.” – Jeff ‘Pickles’ Piccirillo.
It’s unknown whether Kidding will return for a third outing, but if there’s any justice in this world we haven’t seen the last of Jeff Pickles. From the Jim Henson-like puppets to the insightful look into the minds of the damaged, it feels as though the show has fully come into its own. It would be a damn shame if we weren’t allowed to bask in it for just a little while longer…