TV Reviews

“Kidding” Review: Pop Culture Reaches Peak Mr. Rogers Nostalgia with Showtime’s Sinister Series

Kidding, Jim Carrey and Showtime’s new half-hour black comedy about a kids TV show host suffering a mental breakdown doesn’t officially premiere for another week, but the pilot is available to stream for free right now. I have some thoughts.

One of the most refreshing and/or vexing parts of Morgan Neville’s popular Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (my review) is the lack of skeletons. Modern society constantly provides heroes who fail us and social institutions which whither. Religious figures abuse subordinates. High profile celebrities do the same. And politicians get away with white collar murder by distracting us with culture wars, tribalism and fear-of-the-“other” division until their corruption is exposed. Everyone in this society, it seems, eventually turns out to have some skeletons in their closet.

Not Mr. Rogers. At least not according to Morgan Neville. To the delight of Mr. Rogers devotees but consternation of those hoping for a harder-hitting documentary (I personally far more toward the former), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? paints a picture of a man exactly as pure as his on-screen persona. Surely a grown man who dresses, talks, and behaves like that and builds a career out of talking to little children through puppets must be hiding something. It’s just not normal, otherwise. But as far Neville could tell Rogers was exactly what he seemed to be, wholesomely drawn by religion and spirit to devoting his life to advancing the cause of children’s education on TV.

Kidding has no time for that shit. Kidding wants skeletons. Kidding wants the rich drama of comparing front stage and backstage behavior. Kidding wants a Mr. Rogers whose life is falling apart so fast he suffers a nervous breakdown. What if, in short, Mr. Rogers turned into Howard Beale (from Network)?

Thus, we have Jim Carrey playing Jeff Piccirillo, better known to his TV family as Mr. Pickles, a shaggy-haired, vest-wearing, ukulele-toting cultural institution. Introduced to us as he goes on Conan to promote his new book (the bluntly titled Talking to Children), we’re told he’s helped raise “your son, your daughter, your stepdaughter from his couch in Columbus, Ohio.” Within minutes, he pulls out his ukulele and leads the studio audience in a sing-a-long of an old favorite about emotions. Even Conan’s cameramen join in the involuntarily singing. Everyone has clearly memorized the lyrics without even realizing it.

Funniest moment of the pilot: When Conan doesn’t what know what’s up with this ukulele, Danny Trejo, as the other guest that night, shouts, “Come on, everyone knows Uke-Larry!

The reason Jeff gives for singing this particular song is because it’s his wife’s favorite, which earns the mandatory “Awww” from the crowd.

But Jeff’s wife (Judy Greer) isn’t standing off stage crying. She’s not watching from home. She doesn’t even know Jeff is on Conan. And the home Jeff returns to is far from the bucolic setting befitting a kids TV show icon. He walks by drunk Ohio State University students on the way to the front door of his sparsely-decorated, bachelor pad apartment. He watches his taped Conan performance from the comfort of his futon and seems on the verge of tears as the final lines from his song (“Isn’t growing up funny and sweet”) ring out. The only smile he can muster is from calling his wife and hearing the old outgoing voicemail message they clearly made as a family in better times.

Yeah, it’s going to be that kind of show, all dramatic juxtaposition and heartbreak.

We don’t have time for your heartbreak, son.

It’s a fitting look for the increasingly weathered Carrey, who turned heads with his depressing and at-times far out candor in last year’s Netflix documentary Jim and Andy. However, the public face versus private face reveal is hardly a revelation just because it’s applied to a kids show (see: Meet the Feebles, The Muppets.) Nor is the “middle-aged white people don’t know how to be happy” angle. Steve Coogan and Kathryn Hahn already tried that out on Happyish for Showtime. It didn’t work out so well there. Apart from the added star power from Carrey, what should make Kidding different?

Michel Gondry. That’s what.

Gondry and Carrey on right, Keener and Greer on left, show creator Dave Holstein in middle at Kidding’s TCA Press Tour panel

Carrey is reteaming here with his old Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director, who reportedly helmed all 8 of Kidding’s first season episodes. Gondry’s long-standing cordial relationship with Conan is likely why Kidding started there, and his mastery of the whimsical suggests that once Jeff loses it the Eternal Sunshine-style imagery won’t be too far behind. The set of a kids TV show sounds like the perfect playground for Gondry’s storybook imagination and Carrey’s increasingly sinister impulses. Precious little of that is on display yet, though.

Which is why it’s difficult to reach much of a conclusion based on the pilot. The bulk of the episode is devoted toward explaining the tragedy which fractured Jeff’s family and charting the final straws which push him over the edge. There’s also a subplot involving his sister’s (a game Catherine Keener) own flailing efforts at a parenthood and their overbearing father’s (Frank Langella, who could be reading his old dialogue from Dave and you wouldn’t bat an eye, the characterizations are so similar) iron grip on the Mr. Pickles TV show. It’s truly a family business with Jeff as host, his father as the producer, and his sister as one of the head puppeteers, in addition to the various crew members who have clearly been there for years.

By the end, Jeff snaps, but he hasn’t had his “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” moment. At best, he’s gone half-Britney Spears and shaved part of his head. The trailers suggest madness and emotional catharsis are just around the corner. I guess I’m just impatiently waiting for them to get there. That I am left wanting to see where they’re going with this is a compliment to this table-setting pilot.

Kidding premieres on Showtime on September 9th. Currently, you can watch the pilot for free on various platforms, most directly Sho.com

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2 comments

  1. Are you really saying your SAD that Mr Rogers was all that he appeared to be? For me, I’m SURPRISED that there were no skeletons, but really quite relieved that just maybe not everyone in the public eye is hiding something sinister.

    1. Read my review of the doc. I made it very clear that, like you, I’m surprised and relieved to learn Mr. Rogers was as pure as he seemed to be. https://wp.me/p39B8E-brA

      Brought it up here because where true life provided no real third act twist Kidding comes along to conjure up a more conventional narrative, not so much with its Mr. Rogers stand-in being a closeted whatever, more, as Seinfeld once put it, “Serenity now, insanity later.” All of that bottled up anger is gonna come out somehow and the show is devoted to showing us the moment that eventuality finally happens.

      Thanks for the note, though. I have now tweaked the “Kidding” review to make it more clear where I personally come down on the Won’t You Be My Neighbor documentary.

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