Showtime’s highly anticipated series, “Kidding”, debuted this month and has drawn positive reviews early on. Being that topics of grief and depression are central within the plot, we decided to review the first episode to see what all the hype was about.
The last time director Michel Gondry and Jim Carrey teamed up was in 2004’s cult classic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In “Kidding”, the two collaborate again for what, early on, feels like a familiar tone from their previous work. I shall warn you that “Kidding” appears even darker than Eternal Sunshine, dealing with undertones of grief, death, and depression. So for those looking for a light show to adopt…this isn’t it.
The pilot episode begins immediately on bleak terms, with Mr. Fred Pickles (Carrey) getting set to be introduced as a guest on the Conan O’Brian Show. Before introducing Mr. Pickles, Conan’s producer reminds him that “It happened a year ago today” and “his name was Phil” and “not to bring it up”. Mr. Pickles, we learn, is grieving the loss of someone close to him. Soon thereafter we learn that it’s Mr. Pickles’ son, Phil, that has passed, and Mr. Pickles and his family are left picking up the pieces in the aftermath.
Mr. Pickles, Jeff’s stage name, is essentially a facsimile of Mr. Rogers. He hosts a children’s puppet show with sing-along lessons, always greeting the audience (or as he puts, “friends”) with a caring smile and a slight head tilt as if to communicate father-like wisdom. His off-screen character, Jeff, employs a similar demeanor – Mr. Pickles appears to be no façade. In fact, Jeff’s surviving son, Will (an identical twin of Phil) blames Jeff’s being a “pussy” as the reason he’s separated from Jeff’s wife, Jill (Judy Greer).
Each of the family members appear to be unraveling with the loss of Phil in their own tragic way.
Jeff, living alone in a desolate setting surrounded by addicts, is adamant that Mr. Pickles is an educator, a beacon of understanding for all lessons a child should learn, and that includes death. Jeff’s boss, Sebastian (Frank Langella) urges that it would be terrible for Mr. Pickles’ brand and it would send children fleeing from the show. As he puts it bluntly to Jeff when speaking of his damaged off-screen character, Jeff, and the multi-million-dollar brand of Mr. Pickles, “never should the two meet in order to prevent the destruction of them both.”
Jeff is desperate to demonstrate to not only the “friends” in his audience that death is part of life, but also to his family that sees him as a robot incapable of feeling anything but happiness. In doing this, he could begin to repair his family relationship and move back into his home.
Part of Jeff’s insistence in tackling the issue of death on his show is the deeply troubled state of his wife, Jill, as well as the disobedience of Will. Jill has joined a wine club that is “more fun to enjoy on an empty stomach” and has a tattoo of Phil above her left breast. She resists going to Will’s baseball game because “that would be too sad”. She suggests Jeff is not confronting Phil’s death and is trying to carry on like everything is normal. “One of these days it’s going to come bursting through the surface,” she says.
Will’s character (brilliantly played by Cole Allen) appears to be fascinating as soon as we’re introduced to him. Phil’s twin and also a teenager, Will is confronting not only the death of his identical likeness, but the divorce of his parents. And things are not going well. He makes repeated attempts to inflict punishment on his mother (a twistedly humorous angle in the episode) and blames her for Phil’s death. He also appears to have a low opinion of his father. “Don’t try to teach me things,” he tells Jeff.
A second narrative features a colleague of Jeff’s, Deirdre (Catherine Keener), a puppeteer on Mr. Pickles’ show that has a rebellious daughter who refuses to eat vegetables. A sticking point in their relationship, we learn throughout the episode in a fascinating turn, just what may be troubling Deirdre’s daughter about vegetables.
There is a lot to unpack in this pilot episode that runs 33 minutes in length. Watching, you are caught between the unwavering optimism in Mr. Pickles’ character and the crumbling world around him. His family and supporting characters are losing their own personal battles with struggle, while he views himself as the only one who can save them.
In “Kidding”, Michel Gondry appears set to take us down a road of deep despair, perhaps even more depressive than the world he created in Eternal Sunshine. It is raw, authentic, and heartbreaking. Not for the faint of heart. But it is equally gripping, led by fantastic performances by its incredible cast.
Gondry has successfully created great intrigue in a story that, albeit depressing, will have my undivided attention to tune in for more.