The Gentle Rage of ‘Kidding’

No image has left me as traumatised this year as a needle of lethal injection being inserted into the centre of a Sy the Wide-Eyed Fly tattoo on the bicep of a death row inmate.

Kidding could get pretty dark; much darker even that one would instinctively expect from the premise “Jim Carrey Is A Depressed Puppeteer”. That death row episode, and other plotlines involving drug abuse, cancer and numerous other kinds of misery, were the strongest elements of a 10-episode season that — at times — strayed a little too far from its charming, innocent centre to ever achieve the warmth it needed to fully work. Carrey himself was the sweetest part of the show, but once his character — Jeff Pickles, a Mr Rodgers-style children’s TV presenter — was pulled into a variety of unsavoury scenarios; sexual, violent, filled with rage; it became harder and harder to see him as the kind man of the first episode.

Kidding was seemingly intended foremost as a character study of a broken man (a “different kind of man”, as Pickles calls himself in the finale), yet it succeeded much more as a depiction of how television affects people’s lives in strange, sad, little-recognised ways. Mr. Pickles was shown to be a saviour for many; a father-figure, an object of desire, witness to a million living room fights and acts of self-abuse through a magical box. And so he becomes a symbol of American horror: in his composure he is merely a guard to the worst secrets the population holds.

Only naive children look at Pickles without experiencing some level of pain, and so it is in them he seeks his own solace. Episode 10 sees Pickles — Howard Beale for the Spongebob demographic— abandon his quest to save society through tedious televised lectures on kindness, and simply invite children to come sit with him and discuss their problems. He is more fulfilled as therapist and listener than as communicator. His own father (Frank Langella) and son (the exceptional Cole Allen) join the queue to let Pickles hear how they feel. He is, after all, the master of feelings.

Outside of exploring the Pickles figure and his work, Kidding never quite exceeded a general degree of Nice And Charming. Catherine Keener’s character — Pickles’ sister Didi — was never interesting enough to justify the screentime taken away from others; her best moment being a surreal conversation with the Japanese version of Pickles discussing Kintsugi. There was a breaking point of irritability with Michel Gondry’s soupy direction and David Wingo’s percussion-heavy score; it felt like the show needed some scratchier elements; a bit more Iñárritu and a little less Wes Anderson.

It did manage to be truly hilarious at times; the episode The Cookie sees Pickles torture a parrot who won’t stop calling him a c**t by flickering lights on and off. It’s one of the few times Carrey’s career-making physical comedy ability is actually put to use in the 10 episodes; most of the time it’s easy to forget we’re watching the star of Dumb and Dumber and The Mask; such is he in full Eternal Sunshine/The Number 23 mode.

The elements of Kidding that have stayed with me watching week-to-week have not been those I expected; apart from the extremely dark aspects, the subplots surrounding Pickles’ son, his magician persona, romantic aspirations, drug-taking etc. were extremely engaging, largely due to Cole Allen’s great performance, and also perhaps resemblance to a younger version of myself. Somehow, Kidding was at once something of a disappointment relative to my expectations of it, and also much more moving than I had anticipated in very weird ways. The best way to describe its unique aesthetic to anyone is basically “What if Shiny Happy People by R.E.M was a TV show?”. And doesn’t that sound worth checking out?