Written by Dave Holstein, Hally Feiffer, Michael Vukdaniovich, Cody Heller, Noah Haidle, Jas Waters, Roberto Benabib, and Joey Mazzarino
Directed by Michel Gondry, Jake Schreier, and Minkie Spiro
Mr. Pickles is the biggest children’s television star in the world. His show Puppet Time is the surrogate parent for millions of ignored children, and he wants to be as honest and real with these trusting viewers as possible. A year ago tragedy struck when Jeff Piccirillo’s (Mr. Pickles’ real name) son Phillip was killed in a car accident. Jeff, his estranged wife Jill and surviving twin son Will feel Jeff hasn’t been honest in dealing with the death. Jeff’s father and producer Seb wants the show to go on and the darkness of the real world to be kept out of Puppet Time. However, there is boiling anger growing in Jeff, a force of nature that can’t be avoided and the longer he goes without really processing Phil’s death and his failure in listening to the people he loves the worse it will be when things explode.
Kidding is the creation of Dave Holstein who’s previously worked on Weeds and the failed HBO comedy On the Brink. Kidding falls more in the category of Weeds in that it’s a family comedy-drama told from a quirky perspective. What makes this series more distinct is the aesthetic touches Michel Gondry brings as director. The opening titles sequence, different each episode, is a stop motion piece using paper cutouts that spell the series’ name. The world of Puppet Time feels straight out of Gondry’s head with very clever characters like Ennui the talking baguette and conductor whose stomach expands to reveal a choir of singing pickles. Everything has that DIY look that Gondry loves incorporating into his work. Even on episodes not helmed by the French director, there is a strong series style guide being used.
I didn’t immediately fall in love with Kidding, but over the course of this first season I warmed up to it and have to come to regard it as one of my favorite shows of the year. Jim Carrey is front and center as Mr. Pickles, and he plays to his strengths of deep pathos. You can’t help but recall Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I also felt strains of The Truman Show in the relationship between Jeff and Seb, the controlling producer who seeks to make Jeff into the best possible marketable product. Carrey manages to fool the audience throughout, maintaining a very earnest persona but always leading into brief explosions of frustration that are then tamped down. Jeff is a time bomb but is trying to defuse himself. He demands to make a show about death where he can address his loss while speaking to his audience about the realities of mortality. Seb is passionately opposed and musters all his control to lead Jeff down a different path.
Katherine Keener plays Jeff’s sister Didi, the head puppet maker of the show. Her first puppet is created out a need to cushion Jeff from the dissolution their family. In the present day, Didi learns from her daughter that her husband is engaged in an affair with their neighbor, who happens to be a man. The lines of communication dissolve because Didi is unwilling to engage with the idea that she is being cheated on and that her husband is in denial about his sexuality. Didi becomes one of the main people manipulated by her father Seb into creating a line of defiance against Jeff. Didi’s story feels the most unresolved at the close of the season and very little happens beyond the initial reveal of her husband’s infidelity.
The core relationship of the series, in my opinion, is between Jeff and Will, the surviving child. Will was the “good” twin who has begun adopting the negative traits of his deceased brother. He starts hanging out with the stoners, skipping school, and giving Jeff little to no respect. Jeff doesn’t try to act as the domineering father because he knows that he has been an absent and weak parent for most of his boys’ lives. His attempts to reach out to Will are sweet but ultimately shallow. In the season finale, as he becomes a sort of Santa Claus figure to the children of the world, Will finds himself having to wait in a massive line to seek an audience with his dad which leads to more frustration.
At first, glance, Kidding looks to be a simple deconstruction of a Fred Roger-type but the show’s creators aren’t satisfied with merely being a gimmick. Instead Kidding wants a lead character that is complex and nuanced and not always honest. One subplot involves Jeff starting a romantic relationship with a woman who is terminally ill. She seems resigned to the fact that her life will not continue but Jeff can’t stand the idea that a person wouldn’t imagine a future for herself. This concludes in a musical number; Jeff surrounded by puppets imploring his girlfriend to describe the future to him. If we look at Jeff a little closer, we see this has less to do with her and more to do with his unresolved guilt over Phil’s death. Kidding isn’t always pretty, but it is always honest about the messiness of being human.