2018 is the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and so far we’ve seen the release of the excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the definitive biography The Good Neighbor, and now Kidding, starring Jim Carrey as a Fred like children’s TV figure named Mr. Pickles. (Dave Holstein created the series, which doubles as a reunion of Carrey and his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry, who serves as an executive producer and directs a number of the episodes.) But the pilot reveals that it’s not a beautiful day in the neighborhood for Mr. Pickles, and he’s not dealing with it very well at all.
Jeff Pickles (Jim Carrey) has been playing Mr. Pickles on TV for long enough that his appearance on Conan features the entire audience singing along to one of Mr. Pickles’ songs, including Conan and guest Danny Trejo. How real is Mr. Pickles? He believes the “P” in Danny Trejo’s P-Hound necklace stands for “purse.”
Back at the studio in Columbus, Ohio, Sebastian (Frank Langella) runs the show and Mr. Pickles serves more as a star with an inflated producer credit. Their arguments lay out the show’s core art vs. commerce tensions. Mr. Pickles wants to do an episode about grief, which he says it’s to help kids learn to deal with the emotion, but it’s really to help him deal with losing his son. Sebastian insists that children only want the happy, friendly Mr. Pickles to teach them colors — and by the way Hallmark wants Mr. Pickles to establish that purple is the color of Father’s Day. To Mr. Pickles, there’s no distinction between the real person and the character he plays on TV; Sebastian disagrees, insisting “Jeff needs to heal. Mr. Pickles is fine.”
This dynamic also highlights one of the things Kidding struggles with in this premiere. Kidding deliberately draws comparisons to Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers and Mr. Pickles both have two sons. Mr. Pickles lives and films well outside LA/NY/GA in Columbus and Mr. Rogers lived and filmed in Pittsburgh. Most significantly, Mr. Rogers and Mr. Pickles are both themselves on- and off-camera. Neither is playing a character. This big difference, that Papa Pickles runs the show like any other kids’ show, collapses the comparison. A huge part of what made so many of us feel connected to Mr. Rogers was that he was honest about feelings and never shied away from dealing with difficult topics (his show had multiple episodes about grief and loss).
He wasn’t just an upbeat children’s entertainer. If we’d grown up watching Mr. Pickles shill for Hallmark, seeing his face on every branded toy (Mr. Rogers was famously advertising- and licensing-averse, refusing to do anything that might appear to be marketing to children), would we get choked up singing along with him on Conan? In real life, we don’t really feel the same way about the hosts of Blue’s Clues as we do about Mr. Rogers, and it’s because Mr. Rogers really was special. Mr. Pickles has the fame and cache of Mr. Rogers, but Kidding doesn’t demonstrate why.
Mr. Pickles’ puppet friends — one of the highlights of the show-within-the-show, are designed and mostly operated by Deirdre — played by Catherine Keener. To me, there is no question that after Vincent Schiavelli tried to kill Edward Norton in Death to Smoochy, Catherine Keener’s character from movie that left New York City for quiet Columbus to continue to work in children’s TV with — big reveal! — her brother Mr. Pickles and their controlling father Sebastian (Frank Langella). Deirdre forbids her daughter from bathing until she agrees to eat vegetables, which is an unhinged parenting model, right? Right. This kid is dealing with some weird issues (turns out she connects vegetables with seeing her dad get a handy from a neighbor) but Deirdre’s on a whole other level.
Mr. Pickles’ ex, Jill (Judy Greer, great as usual) seems to be handling things best of anyone. We first meet her when Mr. Pickles breaks into her house to clean up and give her a hard time about every single choice she makes. They’re separated (BTW, I just learned this, but the notion that parents who lose a child are at severely elevated risk of divorce is mostly a myth) and he’s still wandering around her house when she’s not there. That’s not okay! That’s not a grieving father thing, it’s a controlling ex-husband thing (and this episode ends with a huge violation).
Before this show premiered, NPR’s Linda Holmes tweeted about it:
I could not agree more. We’re so fortunate to have a TV show featuring Catherine Keener and Judy Greer it’s kind of a bummer that their characters so far seem to be there only to support Mr. Pickles.
The Jill/Mr. Pickles interaction provides an interesting counterbalance to his earlier scene with Sebastian. Sebastian doesn’t want Mr. Pickles to do a show about grief; he insists that Jeff should deal with his own feelings off-air. Jill also presses Mr. Pickles to deal with his own grief, partly so he stops bothering her all the time. Neither Papa Pickles nor Jill Pickles recognizes that Mr. Pickles may be completely unable to deal with his feelings outside of his TV show. Like a pediatric Larry Sanders, Mr. Pickles has spent so much time on TV that he can’t handle his life anywhere else. Also, Mr. Pickles, Jill Pickles, and their surviving son Will all have nearly identical haircuts.
This is also where we see Mr. Pickles’ first violent lashing out. He struggles to connect with his son, so he smashes a mailbox. Later in the episode, he rips the faucet off a sink. Will has chosen to deal with his feelings in a healthier way: smashing beehives on his late brother’s grave to stop teens from smoking weed on and near it.
Mr. Pickles finally insists on shooting a grief episode with a live audience. Papa Pickles acquiesces, then doesn’t end up airing the episode. When Papa Pickles explains that Mr. Pickles is iconic and cannot change, Mr. Pickles shaves some of his head, and also buys the house next door to his ex! Why is Mr. Pickles such a creepy stalker? He’s clearly in the middle of an emotional breakdown, but this is just gross stalker ex behavior! Don’t, like, do that, Mr. Pickles!
Discussion Topics For Parents of Small Children
• Where’s this going with Deirdre’s husband cheating? We don’t really get much of Deirdre’s inner life at all so far.
• Does Mr. Pickles see a kindred spirit in his neighbor who can’t get into her apartment because she’s been playing Edward Fortyhands? There’s some visual comparison between having liquor taped to your hands and having puppets on your hands, I think.
• Will the subplot about the guys in the horse costume hooking up go anywhere? I hope so. It’s really irritating as a barely disguised gay joke but it could be great as a real love story!
• Are we supposed to think Mr. Pickles is actually a good performer who connects with people in an honest way, fighting off corrupting influences as well as he can? Because so far his show seems really basic. (That Uke-Larry bit at the top was so bad.) And he seems much less than he ought to be. He barely seems to connect with his live audience when he shoots the lost grief episode We’ve all seen good and bad Jim Carrey performances; I don’t know where I land on this one so far.
• Will Will continue down the Dwight Schrute route of weaponized bees? What other problems can he solve this way?
• I would absolutely watch a children’s show designed by Michel Gondry. I think his direction lends some real tactile energy to a lot of the behind-the-scenes-of-Mr.-Pickles business.
• Will Mr. Pickles succeed in making his show meaningful and honest? Is TV the healthiest way to do so?
The flashback to the death of Mr. Pickles’ son Phil’s also includes another Mr. Rogers allusion: at the time of the accident, Mr. Pickles was testifying before Congress, shot exactly like this.