Jeff Pickles (Jim Carrey), the host of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, the popular daytime children’s show at the center of Showtime’s Kidding, is beloved by just about everyone in America. Three generations of kids have learned how to engage with the world from Mr. Pickles and his colorful crew of puppet friends, but the man behind the brand is having something of a meltdown.
It’s been exactly a year since Jeff’s 13-year-old son, Phil, died in a car accident, and the man’s grief is manifesting itself in strange ways: He’s shaved an inverted mohawk down the center of his head, and he’s purchased a house right next door to his estranged wife, Jill (Judy Greer), so he can keep tabs on her and her new boyfriend. Most troubling—at least for Puppet Time producer Sebatian Picarillo (Frank Langella), who also happens to be Jeff’s father—Jeff seems uninterested in perpetuating the banal platitudes of a children’s show. He wants to do something “real”—namely, to produce an entire season devoted to loss, with a finale episode explicitly confronting death.
For a series about a kids’ puppet show, Kidding‘s existential themes begin peeking above the surface unexpectedly fast. Creator Dave Holstein and executive producer Michel Gondry, who also directed several episodes, unpack a whole lot in the show’s 32-minute pilot. The series opens as Conan O’Brien is prepping for his next guest, Mr. Pickles, who brings the studio audience to its feet. We quickly realize that Puppet Time‘s theme song, a cross between a Jason Mraz song (Mraz plays along with assistance of UkeLarry, a ukulele with puppet-like facial features) and Barney and Friends‘s “I Love You,” is in fact the show’s thesis: “You can feel anything at all, anything at all/You can feel it/Happy, sad, big, or very small/Anything at all, it’s fine.”
Kidding is a capital-E earnest drama that just so happens to star comedians. When Jeff’s sister, Deirdre (Catherine Keener), apologizes in episode four for not talking more to him, she says, “I don’t know how to talk to you anymore. But I want you to know that I do it all the time in my head, so it feels like I talk to you more than I do.” One can imagine that, in a sitcom, this is where you’d cue the laugh track. But in the silence, that urge to laugh is immediately followed by a pang of realization: There’s something really honest and sad here about the way people seek out but rarely initiate intimacy.
While Jeff’s family continues to both express their very legitimate concern about his well-being and manage their own grief in more traditionally accepted ways—wine for Jill, reefer for Phil’s twin brother, Will (Cole Allen), adamant denial for Sebastian—the series seems to be begging us to question what we assume is the right way. What’s causing Jeff’s downfall isn’t his fixation on mortality, but the fact that he has no one to work out his feelings with because everyone is so damn scared to feel anything.
Given its pedigree, Kidding isn’t what you might expect. Its overarching tone is hard to pin down, and its only contemporary might be One Mississippi, another sorta-comedy that uses grief as a launching pad to offer commentary about the human condition. But it’s such commentary that makes the best prestige television worth engaging with, and after four episodes (the number made available for review), Kidding is taking audiences down a rabbit hole of emotions that’s as dotted with clever dialogue and sharp acting as it is with philosophical inquiry. Meaning that it’s worth getting lost inside Mr. Pickles’s brain as he figures out what the world has in store for him.