Showtime's 'Kidding' is the Deep Dive Into Grief America Needs

Jim Carrey stars as Jeff Pickles, in 'Kidding'. (Showtime)

In 2004, Michel Gondry and Jim Carrey made one of the most searingly accurate depictions of lost love ever committed to celluloid. Despite its inherent surrealism and futuristic overtones, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind captured post-relationship agony in an incredibly recognizable and relatable way. Now Gondry and Carrey are collaborating again for new Showtime series, Kidding (created by Dave Holstein), and they're tackling grief in the same complex and intimate way.

Typically, on-screen explorations of grief are inaccurate, incomplete or both. It's not for lack of trying, it's just that grief is so complicated and differs so wildly per the individual, it's almost impossible to capture. On television, death occurs frequently, but grief is mostly a fleeting plot point (though This is Us offers a rare exception to that rule). In movies, what we mostly get are romanticized depictions (P.S. I Love You), sentimental explorations (Collateral Beauty), or examinations of the immediate aftermath from a single perspective (Rabbit Hole).

Kidding, though, feels different and revelatory. Based on the first few episodes alone, the show appears to be unlocking the core components of grief and trying to piece them together in the same jumbled way people are forced to when they're living with sudden and overwhelming loss. Jim Carrey's character, Jeff Pickles, is a PBS superstar in the same vein as Mr. Rogers, whose son was killed in a car accident one year prior. His wife Jill (Judy Greer) has left Jeff and started a new romance. Their son Will (Cole Allen) is responding to the death of his twin brother by acting out in every way imaginable.

Utilizing the vastly different perspectives of Jeff, Jill and Will allows Kidding to explore the nuances of deep mourning. As so many people are startled to find out in real life, there are no straight-forward seven stages of grief here, and it's refreshing to see a TV show tackling that so unflinchingly. Jeff and Jill's separation also touches on a common real-life problem—up to a third of couples report marriage problems resulting from the loss of a child, and the first six months after are when most grief-related divorces occur.

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Jill's grief manifests in her running away from the familiar. She no longer wishes to participate in any school activities, despite her surviving child, she no longer listens to phone messages (no doubt to avoid the family greeting recorded before her son's death), and she looks agonized to even be in the same room as Jeff. Outwardly, she suggests it's because Jeff isn't grieving enough, but her physical responses suggest the very sight of him reminds her of her past life, and also of her own sense of guilt. She was, after all, the person driving the car her son died in. It's worth noting too that in reality, "the female model of grieving," according to the Center For Human Potential, can include "a deeper feeling of guilt when moving on."

Will is channeling his grief into a full-on rebellion that involves cursing (he calls his mom the c-word and his dad the p-word), smoking weed and smashing stuff. His sense of loss has transformed itself into a sort of frustrated fury, a hatred of his parents and a general sense of nihilism—something that does happen to some young people dealing with grief. “With sibling loss, there is often less opportunity for children to talk about their grief, to work through it and express their feelings,” psychotherapist Jerry Rothman told People magazine. "Survivors may…move into delinquency. Without help, they have difficulty becoming healthy functioning people."

Anyone who has experienced a sudden loss will tell you that one of the most exhausting aspects of grief is the gargantuan effort it takes to look normal for other people. Jeff is the personification of this struggle, as he continues his career as the most positive and wholesome character on television. In him, Kidding is giving us an exaggerated depiction of what it takes to continue on in the world while shouldering an unimaginably heavy burden. Some critics have suggested that Kidding's tone is uneven, but that's one of the things that makes it such an effective show. In reality, trying to carry on with normal life in the midst of extraordinary emotional pain feels wildly uneven, not to mention surreal, which is why Mr. Pickles' bizarre array of puppets feel so appropriate too.

The other perspective Jeff gives us is the desperate need to find meaning in tragedy. In trying to convince himself that everything happens for a reason, Jeff insists on recording an episode of his show in which he explains death to children. He is trying to use his pain constructively, and for the greater good, as so many parents do in the aftermath of losing a child. (Just think of the number of foundations and charities set up under those circumstances.)

When Jeff's producer (and dad) refuses to air the death-themed episode, it's symbolic of America's discomfort in tackling this particular taboo. It's left to Jeff to explain why a societal shift is so badly needed. “The longer we take to deal with this," he says, "the more we’re telling every child in America that when something catastrophic happens to them, they should just pretend it didn’t. When kids don’t talk about their dark feelings, they get quiet. It’s the quiet ones that make the news.”

Kidding, then, is grounded in reality, remarkable in its scope, and breaking new ground because of it. In life, people are often woefully unprepared for the ravages of suddenly losing someone. Kidding is opening up a space to examine the many different faces and directions grief can take, and doing it in a way that belies the standard graduation of tears, hugs and fond reminiscing that usually accompanies a death on television.

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Based on previews, it's inevitable that, as the series moves forward, we are going to see Jeff Pickles spiral out of control. Hopefully, when he does, it will be made clear that it's not because he's managing his feelings incorrectly, but rather because some pain is simply too severe to handle in any kind of ordered, contained way. And that's a reality that is rarely touched on in either our entertainment or our culture as a whole. As such, Kidding is long overdue.

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