Warning: This programme is only suitable for adults.
It’s a scientific fact that Jim Carrey has the most elastic face on the planet. It was an inspired choice by Michel Gondry, then, to use that face to dramatic ends in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Over a decade later, the pair reunite once again for Kidding, a comedy-drama about a kids’ TV presenter on the brink of a breakdown. It’s a remarkably still, poignant performance for Carrey, precisely because his face doesn’t move; underplaying everything for 10 half-hour episodes, it’s an agonising watch, as we wait for that still portrait of calm to crack.
And crack is slowly does, as “Mr. Pickles” (real name: Jeff Piccirillo) finds himself bearing the strain of 30 years of being the face of children’s entertainment. He’s a Mr. Rogers-like figure who’s respected by parents and children alike – not least because half of the parents remember him from their own TV sets when they were young. Jeff’s relationship with his dad, though, is hardly a picture of fondness: also his producer, Sebastian (Frank Langella) views his son more as a brand than a person, and it’s that relationship that slowly drives Jeff into despair.
Created by Dave Holstein, it’s a beautifully observed meditation on the relationship between real life and what we see on our screens. In reality, Jeff is a mourning father who is no longer with his wife, Jill (Judy Greer), and whose son, Will (Cole Allen), is trying to process what has happened. But on TV, Mr. Pickles is a happy, open, care-free person, who bounces back from any rain cloud he might encounter. He smiles, he sings about how “you can feel anything”, but the frowning, crying Jeff can’t. On camera, he still as to wear his wedding ring; Jeff may not be married, but Mr. Pickles is.
It’s a fragmented identity that only becomes more fractious as it’s placed under greater and greater strain. In an ever-changing world of entertainment, there’s also the commercial need to diversity into animation and even a live-on-ice show. The more Mr. Pickles expands, though, the more people become involved in constructing and maintaining his persona; Mr. Pickles is spread so thin that Jeff feels less and less like the identity is his. After years of having his own self pushed aside to make room for Mr. Pickles, now that half of him is being taken away too. “Don’t use a bad word when you can use a good word” is Mr. Pickles’ motto – Jeff is a man who can’t communicate what he’s going through, not least because his vocabulary has been actively silenced.
The result is heartbreakingly sad, as we see Jeff tape an entire episode explicitly about death, and losing things you love, only for Seb to rule it out altogether. And Carrey is magnificent as portraying that dysfunctional disjunct between two identities; his signature mania is channelled into manic desperation. Gondry and the other directors match that gradual disconnect from the world with a wonderful touch of magic realism, spiralling into flourishes of surreal, low-fi creativity, as the universe of Mr. Pickles bleeds into Jeff’s everyday existence; even the cartoonish backdrop for his fantastical realm sees Mr. Pickles ride a barrel over the edge of Pickle Barrel Falls, but nobody has ever thought how to get back up to the top of the waterfall again. Even the big, blue puppet Snagglehorse is secretly being operated by two performers who spend their time inside making the beast with two backs.
The show’s structure mirrors Jeff’s mind, jumping from one tone to another at an increasingly haphazard rate. Subplots become scattered and several supporting characters don’t quite have the focus we’d like – Catherine Keener is superb as Jeff’s sister, Deidre, who also works on the show, but whose own family drama deserves more screentime. But Carrey’s performance brings an anchor of clarity to the intentional mess, a drain that sees everything circle around him to become a reminder of the need not to live life through a TV screen. Being ready to listen is the message given out by Mr. Pickle’s plastic toy dolls, a moral that builds to a wonderfully moving Mr. Rogers-like stunt – and even brings some resolution to the bond between Jeff and Seb, a father so detached that he relies on a voice actor impersonating Mr. Pickles to her the words “I love you”.
The result isn’t exactly fun to watch, but it is undoubtedly funny – and heartbreaking in the most unexpected ways. Emotions and laughs sneak up on you throughout all 10 half-hour episodes, from the tragedy of an office being trashed in anger to the laughter of a trusted family figure saying the most inappropriate things. It’s not until a breathtaking moment involving Tara Lipinski that you realise just how far Kidding has sunk its hooks into you – and as we see the shockingly hilarious creation of an unofficial Mr. Pickles video game, how much it’s able to continually surprise. Has the show worked out exactly what it wants to be yet? Perhaps not. But with a second season on the way, it’s a journey of self-discovery that you won’t want to stop watching.
Kidding Season 1 is available on Sky Box Sets until 27th January 2019. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.