According to Mr. Pickles, played by Jim Carrey in the new Showtime series Kidding, a fictional icon of children’s television who so closely resembles Mister Rogers it’s striking, the worst fear children have is that everyone they love has an expiration date.
He’s right, though I’d add that the fear of death transcends childhood. Almost everyone eventually grows up to become adults who are wholly underprepared to deal with this universal truth: that everyone we know is going to die.
Kidding marks Jim Carrey’s first significant television role in over two decades. The series tells the story of Mr. Pickles, who has lost his son, Phil, and is desperate to talk about it at work, on national children’s television. He is caught between his personal duties and his public ones, between his role as a father and as an entertainer. He believes the show must go on, though he pushes back a bit by wanting to put his grief front and center—to position it as a catalyst for change.
In many ways, the role seems to be autobiographical for Carrey. In a recent profile, the New York Times described Carrey as “effortlessly funny in one moment and unexpectedly intense in the next,” and Jim Pickles displays the same tendencies. Throughout the first episode, Pickles’ language teeters between lyrical and sing-songy. In one moment, he’s profound, like when he laments on how his son’s death is impacting his family (“My family is shriveling up like a polaroid in a puddle. I need to pull it up before it falls apart.”), and in another, he’s annoying, like when he reacts to his estranged wife’s new tattoo (“Is that a [gulp] tattoo? On your… breast? Does it hurt?”).
The show is imperfect beyond Pickles’ out-of-touch tendencies, which critics have pointed out. In The Atlantic, David Sims writes, “Jeff just seems like someone in need of good therapy,” and notes that his dichotomous persona — the whole singing with puppets while grappling with the darkest of thoughts thing — “is a barely compelling-enough starting point for a story, but it’s especially flimsy when serving as a show’s entire concept.”
He may have a point. A meditation on death and children may not be enough to capture an audience, but its premise shouldn’t be dismissed altogether. The first episode of Kidding alone shares truths about the human experience that are valuable and worth paying attention to.
Here, some of the truths worth thinking about:
When there has been a family trauma, children can lose the qualities that make them children.
Grief is confusing and can hinder the way a person parents: at once, a parent may want to coddle their child, while simultaneously demanding things that they’re not yet ready for. In a scene that spans 90 seconds, we see this contradiction play out in real time for Pickles: he’s nostalgic for fatherhood and wants to teach his son about kindness, but his nostalgia is patronizing from Will’s perspective (“Do you know what stewardship is, Will?” “Do you always have to talk to people like they’re four-years-old?”). Taken aback by his son’s coarseness, he asks him, “Do you think I should get an apartment closer to the house?” His question comes from a place of concern, but by asking it, he places his son in the center of his marital conflict. This should be avoided at all costs; as Dr. Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a psychologist and author, says, “Research shows that putting children in the middle of your adult issues promotes feelings of helplessness and insecurity, causing children to question their own strengths and abilities.”
Toxic masculinity colors the grieving process.
When Pickles talks to Seb, his father and manager, about how his return to work after his son’s death made his wife feel, his vulnerability is stymied by Seb’s interpretation of what it means to be a man. He says, “[Women] don’t want to see your cry face. They want concrete arms and a warm touch.” Pickles doesn’t push back much, though he should. Contrary to Seb’s belief, crying is healthy and can help remind loved ones of our shared humanity and can be a source of connection during times of struggle.
The importance of bringing your whole self to work.
Not only does Pickles believe that bringing his grief to work will help him and his family heal, but he also believes that by conflating the two, he’ll create positive change. Seb insists that Jeff and Mr. Pickles remain separate identities, “in order to prevent the destruction of them both.” I’m an advocate for bringing your whole self to work, but I also recognize the limitations that exist in certain professions. For people like Mr. Pickles, whose financial success depends on maintaining a certain persona, bringing your true self to work feels convoluted and messy, especially when your “true self” is occupying a dark place. Though Seb’s response could be more supportive, Pickles does the right thing by disclosing how he feels and being clear about his needs and desires.