As his parents can be heard arguing loudly in the background, little Jerry Perkins (Jeremy Whitehead) puts on a VHS of Kringle Time, the live-action children’s show about magical snowman Kringles that Jerry’s dad (Chris Walker) helped create. “Blinders, Jerry!” says the dad – an instruction to the boy to pull on his homemade mask and focus on the television rather than the vicious domestic dispute unfolding in the room. Kringle Time is Jerry’s retreat, an idealised place of singing and dancing and wonder which provides the boy with an escapist refuge from life’s harsher realities.
25 years later, with his parents long dead, shlubby, grown-up Jerry (Benny Elledge) is station manager at Goshen Public Access, where Kringle Time remains the flagship live programme for children. Jerry is still obsessed with the wholesome show, but its fantasy appeal has been somewhat diluted for him by the realities of working behind the scenes and in particular of having to deal with Herb Kelley (Vernon Wells, Wez from Mad Max 2, 1981), the difficult drunk who has been in the snowman suit since Kringle Time‘s inception in 1987, and who is also the semi-estranged father to Jerry’s similarly dipsomaniac wife Layla (Gigi Edgley). Still wearing the blinders on which his own dad always insisted, Jerry just about manages to see past Herb’s unpleasant person to his more innocent on-screen persona, and to overlook that the ageing actor is ‘burning through interns’ during regular sessions which Herb calls by the same name as the show – only this ‘Kringle Time’ takes place behind the locked door of his dressing room.
Everything changes when Herb suffers a heart attack live on air, not even getting to finish his dying utterance to Jerry: “Never take off the…”. Herb has long been happy to hide behind the mask of his alter ego Kringles, and to keep his secrets secret – and everyone else would also like to preserve Herb’s memory as the popular children’s entertainer. There is even a permanent statue being erected in Herb’s honour by Mayor Rodney Jorkins (Jeff Wincott). Jerry too stands to benefit, and to realise a childhood dream – for in his will, Herb has left the rôle and costume of Kringles to his son-in-law, and if the show is to go on, Jerry, it seems, will be the new snowman, and may even get to have some creative input into Kringle Time‘s new direction. The problem, though, is that Jerry has also inherited incontrovertible proof of Herb’s abusive awfulness, and is struggling with how to frame his newfound disillusionment in a child-friendly format – even as the snowy ghosts of both his father and father-in-law continue to haunt Jerry with his own inner conflicts.
Much of Matthew Lucas’ feature debut Kringle Time – scripted by Zan Gillies – plays out like a scaled-down merger of Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) and television’s 30 Rock (2006-2013). For here, the backstage shenanigans of a community station’s eccentric crew trying to put together a live show are presented as absurdist satire, from the crazy corporate power games of the station’s executive director Daphne (Alyssa Keegan), to the weirdly ubiquitous German janitor Gunther (Torsten Kellar), to the montage of Jerry’s bizarrely elaborate pitch (with its ideas presented diagrammatically like a conspiracy theory). At the same time, as Jerry learns to open his eyes to unpalatable truths, to kill (or at least to let die) his darlings and to create a ‘teachable moment’, the psychological journey on which he embarks becomes ever more earnest.
Indeed, although much of Kringle Time is played for laughs, the toxically nostalgic view of children’s television programming and occasional moments of horror mean that it has an improbable analogue in Danishka Esterhazy’s The Banana Splits Movie (2019). Meanwhile, the studio in which most of Lucas’ film is set may be small and its productions amateurish, but it also serves as both a stage and a microcosm for a bigger world beyond. For here, once the mask slips, both the #MeToo movement, and mortality itself (with its associated issues of legacy), surface as much graver motifs. Jerry’s moral conundrum is ultimately the same one that he has been facing since he was a little boy: should he tackle life’s problems head on, or just look away and keep pretending that everything is as fine as in a show for five-year-olds? In the end, he will make an adult’s choice, but it will come at a price – and the dénouement here, forming a ring composition with the opening scene, is far bleaker than might be expected from a broad comedy.
strap: Matthew Lucas’ seriocomic satire goes behind the scenes of both a Public Access children’s show and an unravelling station manager.
© Anton Bitel