Right up until its final moments, Kidding, the Showtime series starring Jim Carrey as the Fred Rogers-esque Jeff Piccirillo (a.k.a. Mr. Pickles), was the biggest indicator of a shift away from the darker, nihilist and/or fatalist streak that has characterized most shows of the last few years.
In an effort to rival R-rated films and one-up its own small-screen competition, TV shows have been getting darker to the point of being visually indistinct. An abstract grit seems to indicate just how serious and prestigious any given show is meant to be. Dramas like House of Cards, Ozark, and Mr. Robot are all examples of the trend, and even recent comedies — though less aesthetically dark — have more readily delved into difficult territory. (Critic Matt Zoller Seitz referred to these shows as “comedy in theory.”)
Take Bojack Horseman or Review: The series were based on fairly funny conceits — an anthropomorphic horse / washed up ’90s sitcom star tries to make it in Hollywood; a professional critic embarks on a quest to review every life experience thrown at him by his audience — and boasted colorful palettes, but quickly revealed much darker, sobering cores. (Review in particular is one of the most horrifying shows I’ve ever seen.)
Recently, some TV shows seem to be going through a third round of evolution. Series like The Good Place and Forever, like their “comedy in theory” partners, start with a bright premise and visual sense, and apply an inherently tragic core — only to diverge by finding a thread of hope to tie it all together. Being a crappy person doesn’t mean that you’re incapable of change; and love, warts and all, has the power to part the sea. In other words, there’s been a push towards hope rather than hopelessness.
For the bulk of its first season, it’s a bulwark that Kidding seems to uphold. The balance between the brightness of the show within the show, Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, and Jeff’s slow breakdown over the death of one of his sons and his subsequent separation from his wife (Judy Greer) is mostly weighted towards tenderness. The essence of the lessons Mr. Pickles teaches is simply to be good to each other.
So the fact that the season ends with Jeff hitting his wife’s new beau, Peter (Justin Kirk), with his car comes as a bit of a shock (though maybe less so considering that the first time he saw Peter over at his wife’s house, he reacted by tearing the faucet from a sink). Yes, it’s the kind of drastic act that the whole season has been telegraphing — Jeff’s internalized rage and frustration runs too deep, and a breakdown has been hanging over all ten episodes — but it’s extreme to a degree that fundamentally alters the timbre of the season.
The regression is fitting. The mold from which Kidding is cut is not necessarily a novel one; Carrey’s series is the story of yet another man stuck in arrested development, given license to wreak havoc because he’s working through an emotional trauma. Jeff allowing himself to give into his worst impulses thereby feels like a mirror image of the way Kidding toes the line of becoming another antihero show. (How can a man who attempted vehicular manslaughter be an out-and-out hero, after all?)
It makes matters a little thornier that the final shots of the season put a Puppet Time-twee spin on Jeff’s predicament and resulting behavior that, contrary to making it seem cutesy, make the show seem pitch black. One of the signature images of the show is Mr. Pickles parachuting down Pickle Barrel Falls, and in the season finale, he ponders just how it is that he makes his way back up. After hitting Peter, we see Jeff embodied by the Oops, the gangly puppet who he sees as giving him permission to make mistakes. The moment afterwards, Jeff is seen standing at the bottom of Pickle Barrel Falls, staring forlornly up at the rushing water.
So what are we meant to make of Mr. Pickles, the murderer? (Maybe “would-be murderer” is more apt, as Peter is still twitching by episode’s end.) The first season of Kidding relies on an original song, “You Can Feel Anything At All,” as its keystone. The last lyrics are apt: “So feel it/and you can heal it.” Are we meant to excuse Jeff’s behavior because he’s finally opening himself up to acknowledging the negative emotions he’s spent so much time repressing?
If the answer were a square “yes,” Kidding would be a bust, but the show has more on its mind than that. The black-and-white lines by which Jeff has tried to live his life — financially supporting the man who’d been driving the truck that killed his son, for instance, in a total forgiveness that alienates his wife, who can’t understand how he’s so seemingly unmoved — don’t and never have worked, for him or for the people around him.
The series also never asks for that kind of forgiveness on behalf of its characters. We can’t and aren’t expected to think in binary terms; though some of the characters are more thinly sketched than others, they still possess at least a base level of interiority that means their travels through Jeff’s view of the world, which suffers occasional leaks into the Puppet Time universe, remain grounded in some faint sense of reality.
(Reality in multiple senses: the finale directly apes Mr. Roger’s famous open house at the Boston WGBH, where thousands of kids showed up to meet Mr. Rogers where only a few hundred visitors had been expected, playing it as the denouement of Jeff’s realization that he needs to listen to the kids — and adults — he’s been talking to all this time.)
It’s why the finale’s revelation isn’t a magical one — it’s a stark address delivered without any visual tricks at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony — and one of its most affecting moments is a simple phone call, as Seb (Frank Langella), Jeff’s domineering father, while scheming to have his son replaced so as to have some measure of control over the franchise, asks Jeff’s potential voice double to say, “I love you, daddy,” just so he can hear the words in his son’s voice.
When the show premiered, Kidding felt revolutionary in the way that it evolved past the expectations of the standard tragi-comedy and flew in the face of darker dramas. Looking back at the finale, the show has hit a precarious balance now when it comes to recovering that sense of freshness. TV is always changing, and it’s harder to forge new territory than to slide backwards into familiar ground. Kidding is too carefully crafted to blow a season’s worth of narrative evolution in a single episode, even if it is a grim one.