I don’t blame viewers for skipping the “Mr. Rogers has a breakdown” show. Even though Kidding’s main character, Jeff Pickles (Jim Carrey) has clear differences from the real-life hero of children’s television–Jeff’s father is his showrunner, and his young son died in a car accident, to start–the series as portrayed in promos likely felt too close to blasphemy for anyone who grew up loving Fred Rogers. This is the only reason I can imagine that would explain the cricket-chorus which has accompanied Kidding’s debut season, which averaged only a quarter million first-night viewers, putting it well below other Showtime shows. The social media radio silence surrounding the season is even more confounding.
Isolate any episode of Kidding’s first season and it immediately becomes clear that this is not in fact “Mr. Rogers has a breakdown,” but instead something bolder and bigger and wonderfully, inescapably weirder. That being said, I do blame viewers for skipping the latest Michel Gondry-Jim Carrey collaboration–although in the spirit of Mr. Pickles, it’s never too late for a second chance. The duo behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of the most-loved movies of the 21st century, teamed up with series creator David Holstein (Weeds) to test the limits of both format and imagination with Kidding, a show that’s more thought experiment and psychological character study than traceable plot. It’s messy, and not everything lands, but it’s also unlike anything else on television.
Here’s the set-up: Jeff Pickles (Carrey) is a kind, mild-mannered man whose show Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time has inspired kids for 30 years. His good spirits have been tested by the death of one twin son and the consequent acting out of the other, along with the break-up of his marriage and an increasingly greedy brand expansion captained by his father (Frank Langella). Judy Greer and Katherine Keener round out the cast as Jeff’s wife and sister, respectively, while Cole Allen is a breakout playing both of his sons. Ginger Gonzaga also steals scenes as a feisty cancer patient who Jeff takes an interest in.
That’s what happens on Kidding, but that’s only a fragment of what the show is about. Can a peanut butter and jelly hand puppet make you cry? How about a tattoo of a bug, or a barrel dipping over the edge of a waterfall before miraculously flying? In the wacky world of Kidding, you’d better believe it all. Nearly every episode starts with a cold open which usually follows a Mr Pickles’ Puppet Time viewer who was touched by the show, from a man on death row to, in a one-take scene whose incredible set-up went viral, an ex-prostitute and drug addict who is inspired by Jeff to get on the straight and narrow. At times, these moments are framed with such outsized but infectious awe that it’s surprising no one breaks into a song and dance.
Everyone has a kid inside, Gondry demonstrates through scenes that juxtapose the uncategorizable darkness of adulthood with unrestrained, childlike whimsy. These parts of the show are not only endlessly creative and borderline surreal but also (until the finale) relentless in their faith in fresh starts and new yous. We see it and believe it, thanks to Carrey’s layered performance–sweet but unstable, earnest but restrained–in a role that could’ve easily become a caricature. Playful, hopeful, and radically accepting of all human emotions, Kidding and Jeff Pickles strike a surprisingly heartwarming chord for television in 2018.
But since it’s Gondry and Carrey, there’s also the really weird stuff: a murdered potty-mouth bird, real-life ice skater Tara Lipinski getting her throat slashed, and at least three sequences of puppet-related sex. Even all of this fits within the odd but not-quite-contradictory world Gondry’s created, one which plucks a man of “everything happens for a reason” optimism from his candy-colored set and places him in a real world which is stubbornly absurdist. In some sense, he’s a modern Candide, looking on the bright side even when it blinds him.
Even when Jeff can’t create meaning in the chaotic world around him, he remains largely steadfast in his convictions. Keep doing good, and good things will come. One adage traded for another, and Mr. Pickles treads on. That is, until the season finale, “Some Day.” Previously, his father’s assertion that Jeff is in the midst of a mental breakdown seemed off base. Sure, he’d been erratic, but from viewers’ perspective, it felt like more of a response to grief, a mid-life crisis during which Jeff finally stopped to differentiate between himself and his persona.
For those who haven’t given Kidding a shot yet, I won’t go into the specifics of “Some Day,” but it’s worth noting that the finale pushes the series further from any Rogers comparison and into unfamiliar territory. It also reimagines its own world as something less hopeful and friendly than we’d seen before, as if Mr. Pickles determines the emotional landscape of America through his mental state alone. Perhaps he does, which is why this story–of a 21st-century Christ-like figure whose perfection society depends on–is both so ripe for the telling and so hard to tell.
Kidding doesn’t always pull off everything it tries, but in the spirit of other uber-creative shows like Legion and Atlanta, it swings for the fences every time. The show’s second season has already been announced; hopefully it finds the fans it deserves.