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La série américaine Kidding met en scène, sur deux saisons, un processus de deuil. Sous l’apparence d’une comédie, cette série portée par Jim Carrey possède des éléments de la télévision complexe tout en développant une critique de la vie quotidienne telle que les institutions classiques (la famille, le mariage, la télévision elle-même) nous la donnent à voir. L’article propose de l’analyser comme un objet grotesque à partir des outils des études télévisuelles et de la théorie queer, qui mettront en évidence le penchant pour l’échec et pour la dissidence.

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  • 1 Thanks to Joëlle Rouleau and to the anonymous reviewers for valued insights on this article’s matte (...)

1The series opens with Jeff “Mr. Pickles” Piccirillo (Jim Carrey), the venerated host of his own kids’program, being invited to the famous Conan talk show (TBS, 2010), celebrating “his 30th anniversary in children’s television.” He is a successful personality, adored by the audience because of his fantastic puppets similar to those from Sesame Street or The Muppets, funny jokes, kindness, and songs. And yet, we immediately get to know that he has a dark, sad secret. Off-screen, Conan O’Brien is advised not to ask Jeff about Phil, his recently dead son. We understand that, before the events depicted in the series, Jeff’s life has started to fall apart, and that we are going to deal with a very specific affect, grief1.

2Created by Dave Holstein and aired on Showtime in 2017 and in 2020, Kidding tells the story of Jeff, a wacky, awkward anti-hero. Destroyed by the recent death of one of his twin sons in a car accident, he faces a divorce from the woman he still loves, Jill (Judi Greer), now dating anesthesiologist Peter (Justin Kirk). Jeff also deals with profound issues within his family, such as his survived son Will (Cole Allen), father (Frank Langella), and sister Deirdre (Catherine Keener), who also go through the hardships of loss, doubt, and meltdowns.

  • 2 Fred Rogers’ show was also the subject of a recent biopic played by Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in t (...)

3We follow the unraveling of Jeff’s depression all through the episodes of the first season, and his attempts to cope with changes in his life in the second. The series puts forward a galaxy of emotions that violently clash with the expected tone of a comedy, as well as with the bright-colored marionettes and flocculent artificial clouds that fill the show-within-the-show, a pastiche of the classic Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (NET, 1968-70, then PBS, 1971-2001), which was a program packed with warmth, happy songs, and educative intentions2. And yet, very little is cheerful in this Showtime series.

4The tone is set up in the title sequence (which varies for each episode). The images encourage viewers to slip into a dreamy, effervescent universe, and immediately suggest its breaking. On a bright, bal-musette theme composed by David Wingo, two hands move cardboard letters and a Sharpie to write the title and the name of the creator, Dave Holstein, and of the directors. In the first title sequence, an atmosphere inspiring a peaceful childhood, and visions of a simple, handcrafted, realm announce the series’style (Michel Gondry is one of the executive producers and he directed some episodes), but a broken screen appears as the music fades into an eerier tonality.

5Metafictional and grotesque, Kidding brings some characteristics of contemporary “complex” seriality (Mittell 2015) to the fore, displaying multiple tones, mixing genres, and embracing a “queer” disorientation – a way of being in the world that is the one of people forced to be outcasts, but who are also willing to disrupt normative expectations (Ahmed 2014). The story takes place in a sitcom universe, both because of the program within the diegesis and because the family is its narrative center. Pickle Barrel Falls, Mr. Pickles’ world, is based on the repetition of the same: the same puppets singing songs, Mr. Pickles arriving on the stage from a hot air balloon and then descending from a cascade, cheering the audience, over and over again. And yet, all the expectations about a perfect, reassuring life are disrupted: in his private life, Jeff deals with death, divorce, cheating, lies, cancer, break-ups, pre-teen drug addiction, and greed. The 30-minute format classically allotted to comedy becomes the space for a critique of television and a dark exploration of grief and failure, as well as the expression of dissent towards the artificiality of norms.

The sitcom and everyday life

6Kidding is a nesting game: there is a kids’show which is a caricature of classic children’s television, there is a broken family, and the main character is played by a brilliant actor typically known for his comedic roles but also because of his gloomy private life, namely his battle with depression. Each layer contributes in exploring the limits of sitcoms, beyond the image of uncluttered, idyllic figures and situations.

  • 3 Viewers watching fragments from Father Knows Best on YouTube express how reassuring the classic dom (...)

7Traditionally, television is synched to the experience of the everyday, displaying bodies, gestures, and rhythms that echo and balance life events, sometimes opening up new horizons. TV worlds are engrained in everyday life: they are available, continuous experiences that accompany viewers’ calendars, a reassuring presence we can count on. The experience of television is therefore an ongoing, happy merging of multiple worlds, the illusion of abundance and plurality, allowing choice and excluding grief; an ideal family bliss, brought to the fore by 1950s sitcoms that CBS created in order to innovate in the television landscape. Think of the Cleavers on Leave it to Beaver (CBS, 1957-58 then ABC, 1958-63), the Andersons on Father Knows Best (CBS, 1954-1955, 1958-1960; NBC, 1955-1958). During the industrial boom era, televisual families and the daily life of viewers were imagined as mirroring spaces, deeply interconnected spheres, in what became a national ritual, also an interpreter of what family and daily life should be (Gauntlett and Hill 2005, Silverstone 1994). According to Roger Silverstone, “[television] is also a means for our integration into a consumer culture through which our domesticity is both constructed and displayed” (Silverstone 1994, p.24)3.

8The everyday life depicted by such sitcoms has a conservative role, since it does not present any alternative models, and neither does it offer a critique of hegemonic ideologies. Comedies, these tame heterotopias, are reassuring, given the steadiness of their format (episode length of 30 minutes, genre, and type of situations). Whereas the “deviation from the norm” (Carroll 2014, p.34), and “incongruity”, or the disruption of the expected functioning in real life, are at the core of humor mechanisms (Bergson 1901), in classical sitcoms they are seldom put forward in a challenging way. Even earlier comedies used to insert elements for a critique of the society and the American dream, but it was precisely for (harmless) comedic purposes. Yet, over the years, namely since Norman Lear’s more progressive productions in the 1970s, comedies became infused with calculated doses of criticism of a nation’s everyday life. For example, CBS prime time programming quickly transitioned to “serious comedy” and “relevancy comedy,” bringing up unorthodox settings. Let’s mention blue-collar or African-American households, and more disturbing themes such as American consumerism, racism, the war (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman by Norman Lear, M*A*S*H by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds). In the meantime, daytime programming offered reassuring shows aimed at younger generations but also introduced serious topics to them, as we will see later. More recently, animated series such as The Simpsons (Fox, 1987-) or single-camera sitcoms such as Malcolm in the Middle (Fox, 2000-2006) or Modern Family (ABC 2009-2020) have brought up cringe and reflexivity (they show how unrealistic classic sitcom was) by portraying imperfect, dysfunctional, yet lovable families.

9Grief is excluded from such idealized images. The erasure applies on many levels: the economical level (a series must go on over many episodes and hopefully get renewed), the thematic level (the characters inhabiting televisual worlds must somehow be the engines for an ongoing quest, the failure of which jeopardizes the continuity), and the narrative level (a show’s structure should respond to specific imperatives of the channel and the social calendar, modeling its story and genre within conventional forms and rhythm). On the one hand, preventing the end to happen is a traditional part of a televisual project, within the survival market strategies. On the other, within a capitalist society imposing continuity, fast recovery, and quick turnovers, the time-consuming activity of mourning hardly fits in.

10What happens when, today, a show decides not only to tackle and disrupt the idealized synchrony of life and television, but chooses to contemplate loss as a theme? What if it centers its narrative device on the oscillating miseries – and reparative actions – of mourning?

Comedies of death

11Analyzing Kidding makes us understand how television comedy may now represent a space for the elaboration of a critique of televisual idylls.

12Comedy is the genre of impermanence and, at the same time, of paradox. From the perspective of queer theory, it is a key territory: not taking oneself seriously is a good starting point for elaborating alternatives to hegemonic successful stories and characters. In fact, comedy is a genre in which failure (“failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing”, Halberstam 2011, p. 3) can offer “more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (ibidem).

  • 4 Between laughter and seriousness, new themes appear such as trans identity (Transparent, Amazon Stu (...)

13In the recent age of cable networks, and lately with the rise of streaming services, comedy as a format has meant new freedom4. As a Vulture article states, “Like post-rock, post-comedy uses the elements of comedy (be it stand-up, sitcom, or film) but without the goal of creating the traditional comedic result – laughter – instead focusing on tone, emotional impact, storytelling, and formal experimentation” (Fox 2018). Sometimes, and even more frequently today, the 30-minute format encourages the examination of horrific, darker images of families and individuals. Along with series that are not sitcoms and explore grief, it is also within the genre of comedy, then, that television tackles the theme of death. Let’s consider some recent examples:

14Russian Doll (Netflix, 2018) highlights the paradox of repetition: what is death if we keep dying? The main character, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), relives the same moment over and over, and keeps dying in the most awkward possible ways. Through constant deaths, she finally gets to question the laws of the Universe, but especially her beliefs about life. The series encourages to doubt the momentary, partial truths that people think they can gather from their experience, and a dazzling cogitation on seriality as a mechanism that, over the episodes, negotiates its existence between being and non-being.

15In Forever (Amazon Studios, 2018), death is a state quite similar to life, except that the characters have all passed away, not unlike in The Good Place (NBC, 2016-2020). Being dead is an exploration of the anxiety that the promise of an eternity without a god, without answers, creates, therefore standing as a condemnation to embracing all the choices made in life. This comedy focuses on two characters, June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen), and puts forward a structure based on sketches, stressing the repetition of married life. Wedding vows seem even more unbreakable, across life and death and within the space of the dead.

16Such comedies offer the opportunity to laugh and explore deep philosophical speculations about death. Still, they do not create a proximity to a character’s sorrow. Life is displayed as a form of continuity, creating a horizon of expectation in which fiction, its structuration in episodic storytelling, and a certain organization of viewing practices resonate together, towards an ongoing action, a mechanism that does not have to stop. Grief is not at the center of their formula. Yet, TV series, given the viewer’s long-term acquaintance with the characters, might be the optimal space for the development of such proximity, and the sharing of states that make us reconsider our apprehension of the world, for which a theory of “things falling apart” should be explored. A theory of awkwardness as a way of being in the world. Following Halberstam, “one of these modes of transmission that revels in the detours, twists, and turns through knowing and confusion, and that seeks not to explain but to involve” (Halberstam 2011, p. 15). Opening up the place for grief within the study of television might help us understand a series’ proximity to everyday life, allowing to question the ways in which the narrative erases it or uses it for its own purpose, sometimes as a resource.

17Contrary to traditional sitcoms, and even recent cringe comedies, Kidding is a show about mourning. Jeff grieves a dead son, his marriage, and the idea of childhood as an idyll. Not only is the character out of synch, a situation that could be the starting point for laughter, but he also embodies a form of disorientation and of disconnection from society. Jeff truly believes in kindness, he truly loves children and his family: his candor which makes him an outcast, and his stubborn desire to stay true to his values will eventually save him. Television is shown as a resource, as he uses his show to express his feelings: he attempts – and fails – to broadcast an episode about death; he speaks freely to millions of children against the fallacies of consumerist society; he is somewhat responsible for a violent accident which takes place during his show “On Ice”; he manages to build an episode around the concept of change, by inviting his ex-wife to sign the divorce papers on air. Following the thread of Jeff’s obstinacy and his struggle in accepting change, we can identify a trajectory of mourning that television seriality can display in a unique way.

18The series opens up with features that create opposite beliefs on viewers: because of its format, and the fact that Jim Carrey plays the main role, we expect comedy. Carrey brings his persona, charged with his previous slapstick interpretations of “male stupidity” – which are not stupid at all: according to Halberstam,

… anything with Jim Carey [sic] or Adam Sandler, particularly Jim Carey [sic], precisely because they are not trying to rescue male stupidity, manage to provide a pretty accurate map of the social webs that tie male unknowing to new forms of power. By mapping stupidity in this way, we render it useful, provocative, and suggestive…” (Halberstam 2011, p. 58).

19Let us note that over the years he has attempted to transform such a reputation with dramatic roles such as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry 2004) and Number 23 (Schumacher 2007); incidentally, his work on The Truman Show (Weir 1998) echoes Kidding’s reflexive aim to underline the cracks within a perfect televised world. At the same time, Jim Carrey epitomizes the sad human being trapped in a successful clown mask, as the audience knows the sadness of his recent events, such as the death of his former partner:

Having a grieving actor who has spoken of feeling imprisoned by his goofy screen persona playing a grieving actor imprisoned by his goofy screen persona brings an undeniable frisson here. Carrey is extraordinary, wearing pain and disappointment as a second skin. Meanwhile, the push and pull between maintaining the familiar public face and revealing the man underneath is keenly drawn (Sturges 2018).

20From this standpoint, the production uses the actor in order to exploit the most disturbing elements already present in Mr. Roger’s show: Fred Rogers did indeed talk to kids about death (Ep. 1011 “Death of a goldfish”), and he devoted five episodes to divorce (Ep. 1476: « The McFeely’s wedding », Ep. 1477 : « A visit to a pretzel factory », Ep. 1478 : « A visit with a boy in a wheelchair », Ep. 1479 : « Some things can’t be fixed », Ep. 1480: “What’s it like on an airplane?”).

21Mr. Pickles adopts the same educational aim, and yet the audiences are unforgiving: Jeff gets angry letters from parents who disliked his frankness, and he is repeatedly assaulted; the host of the Filipino version of the show, who also does an episode about divorce, is bluntly killed by the army. We could argue that Kidding depicts television reception in a time marked by a backlash against Obama’s politics (Trump’s America differs from the 1970s, when PBS begun to air, an era when for example, debate on divorce and women’s rights were burgeoning). In any case, Kidding’s metafictional assemblage gets to point out the hardships of airing a kid’s show with educational purposes, from the point of view of a host who is mourning. This is where the sentiment of disconnection comes from.

22Kidding breaks up normative comfort and invites viewers to share an alteration of the perception of the world, and disruption (of bodies, of emotions). Jim Carrey’s ageing mask-like face incorporates the subversion of the familiar and the reassuring, where blood ties are threatening, and the grasping of meaning distorted by Jeff’s feelings. To experience a profound crisis while trying to keep a smile creates the effect of grotesque, a sentiment of unruliness and discomfort within a previously familiar realm. According to George Harpham, “for an object to be grotesque, it must arouse three responses: laughter and astonishment are two; either disgust or horror is the third” (Harpham 1976 p. 463). And Kidding is a grotesque show since any time, while singing marionettes make the show go on, a slip towards madness is always possible, like an ice skater who inadvertently cuts someone’s throat during a twirl.

The mourning show

23Over the episodes, Kidding puts forward the grotesque inescapability of mourning, showing how mourning breaks everyday life, through non-linear trajectories across memories, nostalgia, and anger. Kidding plays between two large spheres: darkness and light. Alternating tears and laughter, death and life, cuteness and disgust, it creates discomfort. The everyday alternates between smiling cartoon-like decorations and the horror of a family which has fallen apart, seen from the viewpoint its most fragile members. Jeff’s subjectivity is placed at the core, stressing the experience of being imprisoned in a broken mechanism, and the paradox of clashing against the boundaries of comedy.

24Something out of place is constantly creeping into everyday actions. The horse puppet from the kids’ show is animated by two men who are having an affair; Jeff’s new girlfriend, Vivian, has “terminal” cancer, and, when in “unexpected” remission, she quickly leaves him. First suggesting an idea of innocence (Jeff never swears: “why would you use a bad word when you can say a nice word?” he tells Will), the series then conveys the desolate realization that such innocence has never existed. Dark humor is found in his son, who scares away potential buyers of a home with stories of a burning zoo, smokes pot, drinks wine, and lies to adults. But most importantly, darkness is found in Jeff’s childhood story: we learn that he created some marionettes with his sister in order to overcome the grief of their mother’s departure. Moreover, the everyday triviality is replaced or transposed into a set of situations highlighted by the fact that most of the characters are TV crew members. Like Truman’s, Jeff’s emotions have been televised since he was a teenager – his father decided to exploit Jeff’s creativity by transforming it into a successful show (“a cage”, as Jeff realizes in S02E05, “Episode 3101”). In this world, where the professional and the personal constantly converge, the hardship to process the grief is even stronger.

25During the first season, we witness Jeff’s efforts to talk about his suffering on the show, in spite of his father who is firmly opposed to it. Jeff still manages to boycott the idea of televised happiness. For example, he states: “Kids know that the sky is blue. They have to know what to do when it’s falling”. But, as we get to understand, he does so always out of his love for kids, because he wants to be true to them (another echo to the Truman-trueman character). Childhood – and television – appear then as deeply sad realms, but also resourceful ones.

26On the one hand, filled with the tangibility of the arts department textures (paper, cardboard, plush, plastic eyes), the series exposes and celebrates its artificiality, and suggests that the televisual world takes over the individual’s life. Uneasiness emerges under the cover of funny French-cheese characters, talking Hawaiian mandolins, and otters dressed as astronauts. On the other hand, such synthetic televised world of the children’s show is also a space for affects, creativity, reparation, and revolt. The puppets are real presences in Jeff’s and Deirdre’s life, used as stand-ins for some loved ones who left, or to imagine alternatives to a crushing present (see the genesis of Deirdre’s attachment to the Astronotter in S02E09, “The Nightingale Pledge”); talking puppets in the shape of Jeff, comfort children alone in their homes. Such props, and then especially the “listening puppets” in season 2, help the kids and Jeff communicate, and cope with a reality that is fixed and threatening, while still offering continuous opportunities for transformation and hope. At the same time, a version of the talking puppet, sold in malls for Christmas, is the object of violent fights. And we learn, along with Jeff, that a giant puppet is being made in his likeness. This grotesque, larger-than-life face will be the protagonist, at the end of the first season as well as at the end of the second, of the ultimate collapse of the series and of real life, when the real Jeff is practically replaced by Jeff-the-puppet, in the first season, and when he’s finally able to react and find a form of repair at the end of the second season.


27Adding to the themes and characters, the mechanism of the show itself gives the viewers the sense that everyday life has been transformed into a machine. We know that, just like a jammed mechanism, something is going to break, or stop working, or start working the wrong way.

28Television narratives are the space of repeated microscopic movements: their world-building power is made of repetition, not of big events. Bodies are represented in their everyday rhythm, and, from a critical perspective, this highlights their almost automatic dimension. Gestures become techniques of the body, or ways to be in the world that come from habit and repetition, according to Marcel Mauss (1936). Within such a framework, it is interesting to note the acting capabilities of Jim Carrey who, through his career, has often played as if he was a puppet himself. In Kidding, we witness the degeneration of his aging flesh, shaped by depression: filmed closely, with lighting that accentuates the dullness of the environment he lives in, he is exposed in all his fragility, like a puppet without animation. Lacking a comfortable grasp on the world, across the episodes, Jeff crashes, breaks, stumbles, and still never quits his mission of educating children. “Normal” gestures, repeated slogans, and singalongs all sound fake because the viewers are aware of the tragedy that the main character went through. The more reassuring his reality is built up to be, drawn in pastel colors, made up of gentle, peaceful materials, the more despair he feels as things fall apart.

29For example, at the end of S01E1 (“Green Means Go”), Jeff stands in front of his mirror, gazing at his reflection. He has just learned that a puppet is going to be made in his image for an “On Ice” show. He is strongly against this decision, which he sees not only as an excessive commercialization of his image, but as a final replacement. He contemplates his aging figure. With a razor, he shaves a section of hair down the middle of his head, while we hear his father’s voice, commenting: “You are not a real person. You are a man in the box. You’re a block of wood, and you like it that way”. Wanting to disrupt that static image of a puppet, Jeff wildly yet accurately shaves his hair, ending the sequence with an ironic expression of guilt on his face. Wildly yet accurately: here lies, in this desperate intentionality, all the grotesque and queer dimensions of the show, linking to the idea of willful subjects by Sara Ahmed, or “those who get in the way of happiness,” (Ahmed 2014, p. 2), showing the “potentiality to enact a no” (ibidem, p.10).

30Depressed, out of sync with others, a failure, Jeff is a liability: the production, therefore his family, has to get rid of him. Failure means not being able to fit in a social narrative, for example, or also to get lost in a set of gestures that have grown out of habit and ended up feeling automatic, unnatural. The characters feel that way and find themselves trapped and confused. If the series makes viewers feel such failure (which might, of course, concern their own failures), the laughter stops. Bergson points out “the absence of feeling which usually accompanies laughter”:

It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion. (Bergson 1901, p.10.)

31Kidding does not establish a distance between the otherwise humorous gestures of Jim Carrey’s clownesque Jeff: instead, it makes us share his everyday life, and closely feel his depression. Let’s consider David Evan Richard’s remarks on depression in TV series (2019). Depression, manifesting itself through melancholia, asthenia, the impossibility to discern between subjectivity and objectivity, breaks the usual continuity in the relation to the world, typically creating a disruption of the everyday.

According to Richard,
The body feels different in experiences of depression. First, the body “feels different” in its perceptive grasp of the world. Things look more grey and less clear; the world seems drained of its vitality, appears rough, thin, and fleeting, or heavy, thick, and interminable. But the body also objectively “feels different” in the world. That is, when healthy, the body is largely lived through as a vehicle to accomplish an agent’s intentional goals. But the body’s objectivity emerges in times of fatigue, or in the uncanny numbness of a “dead leg” (clinically known as paresthesia) that resists – at least temporarily – being prodded. Depression might be conceived as a form of existential paresthesia. Rather than transparently mediating the self and the world, in episodes of depression the body becomes something that is endured: lifeless, inert, and heavy […]. (n.p.)

  • 5 An extra layer of metatextuality is given, in season 2, from the display of the nursing home giving (...)

32A series is also an experiment on the place of bodies within a specific temporality, as time is inscribed within bodies. The everyday and family life are subjected to time, and build on it – life with its milestones, which series and especially family sitcoms are able to represent, as well as the time of life, with long-term soaps in which characters and actors grow old. Jeff’s experience of the world is one of endurance through hardships, and we almost physically share his inability to fluidly move across places and times. We feel his disorientation as things alter, as he understands that he has to change too5.

Against reassurance

33Let’s see how this resistance or “paresthesia” applies to Jeff’s relationships. Every character is caught in a struggle for the search of their own selves, in a fight against their fragilities, often against each other. The series’ structure allows for temporary moments that focus on singular characters, developing episodic situations as well as the interaction between such stories, while the overarching narrative follows Jeff. Some of the occasions where the family gets together could be the space for a reassuring image, and yet, the series always breaks them – Jeff boycotts them through the way he talks about his depression.

34In S01E7 (“Kintsugi”), the group has a Thanksgiving dinner. It is filmed like a typical cheerful situation: shots of the food, people smiling and being nice to each other, camera traveling across the room. Yet, it quickly turns out to be a place full of tensions. Vivian (Ginger Gonzaga), Jeff’s new girlfriend, has just received the news that her cancer (previously presented as terminal) is in remission. When the topic of a family vacation comes up, she announces that she would prefer not to participate and go on a trip by herself, which leads up to the fact that she has decided to leave Jeff. The kids are drinking wine, the father shouts an insult as she quits the house. Once more, Jeff is left alone with his dark feelings that we perceive from the clashing of a possible, happy (sitcom-like) world, and reality’s deep gloom.

35Jeff’s hopelessness is striking, and yet his (politically queer) stubbornness is there: hampering the order becomes his way of action. By focusing on the bodily effects of such disruption and by stressing the character’s depression using his subjectivity, the show points at the tragic aspect of TV comedy itself. It makes the viewer feel the unbearable need for continuity and, escaping narrative homogeneity, incites him to live from the inside how much the imperative of the “show-must-go-on” is really hurting. He is able to express his anger and frustration, manages to tell the truth, and with some similarities to Truman in the previously mentioned film, or with the killjoy character played by William Holden in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 Network, he brings to the fore the grim dimension of television, and deconstructs it as an institution of surveillance and control within a consumerist society. In the first season’s finale (S01E10, “Some Day”), we see him sending a wake-up call to 10 million children on Christmas Eve, on national television: “Your parents don’t deserve you. You are the product of narcissism.”

36Impermanence is at the core of the characters’ development: each one of them sees their expectations deceived, up to the grand-guignolesque season finale, which is spread across two episodes. In S01E09, “Pickles Lt.,” Jeff gets to the “On Ice” show just in time to witness, in disbelief, arriving on the rink from an air balloon, a giant puppet with his face which is then greeted by famous American figure skater Tara Lipinski and all the puppets in the program. In the dark arena, glowing with circling green and blue spots, he realizes that they are indeed using the puppet against his will. The camera, from a low angle, focuses on his face, slowly getting closer to it and accentuating the progression of angry tears coming up in his eyes. “I’m sorry, but the show just didn’t make sense without you,” his father says as he joins him, carrying blue and pink cotton candy. Betrayed, Jeff shouts, “You promised!” but gets no answer. The editing then increases in pace, making us feel Jeff’s growing desperation and fury. A high angle displays the whole rink, in which the puppets are figure skating. Rapidly, the following shot gets closer to the giant puppet, pans across it and Tara Lipinski, giving a sense of vertigo and fast movement. The audience is composed of overexcited children screaming with joy, while Jeff sits down and takes out his phone in order to play a Russian videogame in which he has to shoot characters from the Pickles Show’s world. But due to legal infringement denounced by the Pickles Company, the game has stopped working. In anger, Jeff puts his telephone down, looking back to the rink.

37The following shot contains elements of the videogame, superimposed to the image, making the rink a first-person shooter. Surprised, looking almost high, Jeff starts playing – in real life – targeting alternatively Tara Lipinski and the giant puppet (Tara’s jealous sister is inside it). The camera alternates between his face and the two other characters performing on the ice, while a videogame score intrudes on the upbeat soundtrack. In a crescendo of rapidity, the puppet performs a set of spectacular high-risk spins at a very close distance of Tara, under the watchful eye of Jeff, therefore always under the videogame-like aiming gun. At some point, Jeff exclaims “Pshoo!” imitating a shooting gun. Shockingly, the next shot, framed from the point of view of the puppet, shows the skate blade cutting Tara’s throat. The music stops. The episode ends on a set of images of the horrified audience, including Jeff, alternating with Tara lying on the ice.

38Through the representation of an extreme, almost caricatural development of Jeff’s personal and professional trajectories, the series makes the viewers feel the grotesque dimension of depression, at the crossroad of slasher, comedy, and tragedy. Jeff is out of place: he carries the weight of his failure as a husband, a father, a son, and a showman. And again, he does not only endure his impossibility to fit in the world: he reacts, and the consequences are tragic. As the characters’ bodies show their limits (aging or acting asynchronously from everyday life), and end up breaking, the viewers are left with a sentiment of discontinuity from the home and family, putting forward a nostalgia for the world of the sitcom, for a televisual everyday life, now lost. In S01E10, Lepinski is shown at the hospital and not dead, and a cliffhanger underscores the unease: Jeff runs over Peter, Jill’s new boyfriend, with his car. Peter lies lifeless on the ground. Season 2 is announced.

39This grotesque season finale creates expectations for the following season and avoids a clear completion, therefore leaving viewers in a state of suspension. This boycott of narrative closure is at the same time useful for building dramatic tension and for creating interest for next season. It is also a refusal to commit to definitive, normative truths. Such a season finale stresses the impermanence of television, even (or especially) of domestic comedy, one of the most flexible, and closer to everyday life genres. The development surprises because it goes against both tragedy and happy ending, letting all the threads go towards the worst possible issue while still leaving an opening.

40And season 2 opens up with the consequences of what Jeff did. The first four episodes deal with the rearrangement of the situation, making the ground for an episode 5 in which Jeff’s life events fully converge with the show-within-the-show. It is a singing episode which refastens the ties with the kids’ show and explores the concept of the “ungluing” of homes as well as the ineluctability of change. In a falling Pickle Barrel Falls, all the characters have to say their goodbyes, including “Nurse Jill,” Jeff’s now ex-wife – since Jeff has finally accepted to sign – live on television – the divorce papers.

41Taking as a standpoint the idea that mourning is a recursive process, developing over time, like an oscillation, we can argue that especially because Kidding is a series, it is apt for displaying and for moving viewers emotionally towards grief. A series’ narrative allows repetition, and the imperfection depicted in each episode is the space for the elaboration of answers about our own processes of dealing with grief, also thanks to momentary laughs. Moreover, a non-linear path, and an editing which echoes the illusionistic nature of a TV set, make space for a communication between the spheres of the living and of the dead, a porousness typical of mourning. The first episodes of season 2 largely use the hallucinatory effects of editing to create the feeling of moving, with Jeff, from the past to the present: for example, a run towards the hospital with Jill, in a desperate attempt to save Peter, superimposes on to the run towards the hospital with a pregnant Jill on the point of giving birth; Will, Jeff’s son, tries magic in order to go back to the past.


42The comedies of death we mentioned in the introduction ask: “what is life after death?” A tragic dimension can be found in them, since characters do not escape death. But they face – and get through – the transition. They still exist, even if puzzled, beyond it. The struggle is found in the quest for knowledge – death is given as a state of being, a space for laughter, and a privileged standpoint to look back at life. Such series do not fight the impermanence and the cessation that death brings, and most importantly, they rarely tackle the illusion of happiness of televisual life. Instead of mourning, viewers are encouraged to follow a handful of somewhat playful characters, and, despite the compelling philosophical questions that they engage in, the final result is not one of a disarray but, rather, of (most of the time satisfactory and uplifting) closure.

43Kidding offers another, complementary look, that shakes up the boundaries of comedy and drama. The point of view is one of a character who is still trapped in a life that forces him to smile. The genre and format of comedy are stretched, and everything, including cinematography, highlights a sense of disarray, exposing the grotesque within life. Death breaks the mechanism of comedy, depression gets in, influencing the perception of the world, hijacking the fluidity and imposing a stall – or a revolt. The crisis, announced since the beginning, never ceases to unfold. The everyday depicted in this series is therefore tainted with a genuine sense of failure that counterbalances the typical continuity and reassurance of television; and yet, the character’s determination emerges as a force – a critical, boycotting force, which can be read as a salvific impulse against classical institutions: work, family, and television itself. And if the series’ finale (Kidding has been announced as canceled in November 2019) suggests a possible « happy ending », we know that, through the hardships of mourning, Jeff has maybe learned to embrace change, but that he has also learnt that nothing will be as innocent as before.

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1 Thanks to Joëlle Rouleau and to the anonymous reviewers for valued insights on this article’s matter.

2 Fred Rogers’ show was also the subject of a recent biopic played by Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Heller 2019).

3 Viewers watching fragments from Father Knows Best on YouTube express how reassuring the classic domestic sitcom, which brings back the ideal of a simple, “innocent” family life based on clearly defined roles and norms, can be. Nostalgia for their own past merges with the stories of the sitcom’s family: <> accessed September 5, 2019. See also Derek Kompare who puts forward that television, with its repetition, mainly represented by syndicated programs, is the main archive of our memories (Kompare 2004).

4 Between laughter and seriousness, new themes appear such as trans identity (Transparent, Amazon Studios, 2014-2019), infidelity and crisis (Togetherness, HBO, 2015-2016), as well as stand-up comedians who explore personal, tragi-comical or alternative paths, as in Portlandia (IFC, 2011-2018), One Mississippi (Amazon Studios, 2016-2018), Documentary Now! (IFC, 2015-).

5 An extra layer of metatextuality is given, in season 2, from the display of the nursing home giving to its hosts the “nostalgia therapy” or the illusion to live in within an idealized world when time has stopped before the election of Nixon in 1968.

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Marta Boni, « Kidding: Everyday Life, Disrupted »Mise au point [En ligne], 14 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 août 2021, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marta Boni

Marta Boni est professeure adjointe au département d’histoire de l’art et études cinématographiques de l’université de Montréal où elle enseigne la télévision. Elle s’intéresse aux problèmes théoriques et méthodologiques liés aux phénomènes de type sériel : séries télé, adaptation, transfiction, transmédia. De ces phénomènes, elle explore la complexité narrative et l’entrelacement de celle-ci avec les pratiques d’appropriation des fans. À l’université de Montréal, elle a créé le Labo Télé ( qui vise à développer les outils pour l’analyse des formes, des genres, des modes de production, des cultures et de la circulation transmédiale des récits de fiction télévisuels.

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