By Dipti Kharude Mar. 11, 2020
Kidding, starring Jim Carrey, is a show that focuses on the ugly side of positive psychology and the highly individualised process of grief. It makes a case for acknowledging and being responsible for our pain – and rejecting the toxic “Good Vibes Only” culture.
“Kids know the sky is blue. They need to know what to do when it’s falling,” Jeff Piccirillo tells his father, Seb, in an episode of the show Kidding. “Jeff Pickles”, played by Jim Carrey, is a Mister Roger-esque figure, an idealist who has regaled and comforted kids for 30 years as the host of a TV puppet show, produced by his father.When we meet Jeff in the first season, one of his 13-year-old twins, Phil, is killed in an accident, when a truck driver runs through an intersection and hits the car being driven by Jill, Jeff’s wife. His inner world comes undone after his son’s death. The gulf between his reassuring, lovable public persona and his distressed self begins to widen. Kidding (seasons 1 and 2, streaming on Hotstar) is rife with insights on parenting and navigating the torturous maze of grief and repression.
In the first season, Jeff wants to talk about death on his show. But his pragmatic father has his gaze fixed on Mr Pickles’ character as a lucrative merchandise machine. It would teeter on the edge of a financial collapse if Jeff veered away from the agreeable, optimist figure that the audience has known him to embody. “You’ll traumatise the kids. Sometimes when we think we’re opening up, we are actually falling apart,” urges Seb. “When kids don’t talk about their dark feelings, they get quiet, it’s the quiet ones that make news,” Jeff argues, offering glimpses of the unhealed residues of his own childhood and his own inability to express negative emotions.
What the show gets right is the highly individualised process of grief. While the bereft Jeff tries to process the loss through his show and by cheering for his dead son’s baseball team, his wife, Jill, racked with guilt and self-loathing gets tattoos on her breast and downs wine. She does not gloss over her anguish. Upset about Jeff writing cheques for the driver whose back is injured in the fateful accident that kills their son, Jill wants to see Jeff’s rage. A scathing remark reveals the faultlines in their relationship: “After the accident when all the cards arrived, they were all addressed to you. You’re Santa. I’m Mrs Claus. Next to you, I’m the bad guy.”
As Jill tells Seb later, the show denies him his humanity.
Jeff is a prisoner of his persona. As Jill tells Seb later, the show denies him his humanity. He represses his anger and adopts meaning-making as a coping strategy, believing that the truck blew through the light for some greater good. “The world is a perfect circle of endless possibilities,” Jeff tells Jill but for her, it’s a black hole. Jeff’s insistence on euphemisms also highlights the unhealthy side of positive psychology. He thinks his breakdowns are his breakthroughs and naively labels his separation with his wife as her taking time to “process her feelings”.
At the heart of the positive psychology movement is the assertion that external circumstances affect our happiness only to a small degree and our intentional activities determine our happiness. Co-author of The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom posits that this philosophy risks endorsing a culture of compulsory happiness – the idea that you can be well and happy just by thinking the right thoughts. It encourages a culture of victim blaming. In the case of Jeff, staying positive through the smog of grief and retreating into the fantastical world of puppets only compounds his despair. The denial of his anger only fuels it.
Meanwhile, the surviving son, Will, takes to marijuana, mirrors his brother’s defiant mannerisms, and gives up on his magic tricks that he once loved. He is aware that when his family sees him, they also see his twin. “It’s nice to not feel like the living dead sometimes,” Will tells his friend. Jeff is always seen mouthing platitudes and talking in metaphors to Will but his son just wants him to listen. He can only genuinely connect with his sister Deirdre, a puppeteer on his show.
Meanwhile, instead of helping Jeff process his feelings through grief counselling or persuading him to go off air, Seb encourages him to conceal them and compartmentalise. When physical escape is impossible, compartmentalisation provides a kind of mental escape. Straddling the incongruent emotions of Jeff’s suppressed anger and his alter-ego Mr Pickles’ perennial positivism, makes him edgy. His fury starts rearing its ugly head occasionally. “I talk like a monk but inside I’m St Helen, it’s 1980 and I’m magma from the neck down,” he confesses. Crushing under his moral fallibility, he eventually succumbs to his unaddressed anger and hits Peter, Jill’s boyfriend, with his car. But Jeff’s guilt leads him to volunteer to be his liver donor.
Jeff’s insistence on euphemisms also highlights the unhealthy side of positive psychology.
Giving most of his salary to charity, Jeff lives a modest life. “I don’t like spending money on myself,” he tells Jill, his wife, when he asks her to choose his father’s backyard as their wedding venue over the expensive, New York Public Library. It takes the Dalai Lama in the second season to remind Jeff that “he’s the monk and that Jeff is only a children’s TV host.” He distills his propriety to his abandonment by his mother, alluding to the “mother wound”. Not a clinical diagnosis, the term refers to a loss, a lack or a deficit of parenting that bruises the psyche of a child. It offers a framework to understand misguided romantic idealism, codependency, and entrenched feelings of perfection and control in adulthood. While Jeff’s sister Deirdre hankers for her father’s elusive approval and does something extreme towards the end of season 2, Jeff comes to term with his anxiety and fires his father as the producer of his show.
All along, the answers lie in Puppet Time, the show that Jeff hosts, which deploys the tools of songs and magical realism to deconstruct difficult subjects for kids: “You can feel anything at all… happy, sad, big or very small. It’s you who’s doing the feeling and that makes it okay and if you don’t know who you are yet, you can feel it anyway.” The simple wisdom woven into the songs is a reminder of how most parents send their children to fancy schools to foster their intellectual growth but pay very little attention to their kids’ emotional intelligence.
Jeff starts healing when he confronts his pent up wrath and lessens its charge. He even admits to Jill that he blames her for Phil’s death. The sincerity of that ire liberates her from self-flagellation. Jeff feels the need to relinquish his utopian worldview and the guise of the children’s saviour. He begins embracing his role as a father and even beats up a man to protect Will, in full public view. When Will asks him, if he’s worried that people won’t like him anymore, he says, “Even Jesus had enemies.” Will points out that Jesus didn’t beat up people, to which Jeff quips, “Jesus was not a father.”
In a recent interview with Indiewire, Jim Carrey says, “I’ve known so many people… everyone around them says, ‘Wow, that’s the nicest person in the world,’ And I sit back and go, ‘Yeah, but are they nice, or are they just afraid to be seen as flawed? Are they afraid to be seen as emotional?’ Is it an act of cowardice to be nice sometimes?” Kidding makes a case for acknowledging and being responsible for our pain – to heal, reparent ourselves, and reject the toxic “Good Vibes Only” culture.
Dipti Kharude works to give a good life to her cats. When not earmarking places to travel to from world cinema, she's busy dreaming of moving to Istanbul.