The magic trick that sets Kidding apart is that it’s about a character who is quite clearly breaking, but never actually breaks. In his first series regular role since In Living Color, Jim Carrey plays Jeff Piccirillo, better known as the ever-smiling man-elf host of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time. Jeff has become so lovingly ingrained in the hearts and minds of the world as his children’s show alter-ego that strangers call him Mr. Pickles on the street. He doles out fatherly advice to children long after the cameras stop rolling. When he pulls out a talking ukulele on Conan, fellow guest Danny Trejo barks in his trademark growl, “Everyone knows Uke-Larry!” But Mr. Pickles’ personal life is in shambles. One of his sons—half of a pair of twins, Phil and Will (Cole Allen)—was killed in a car accident involving a faulty traffic light and a cake truck. His wife, Jill Pickles (Judy Greer, bringing 110% to an unfortunately thin role), left him shortly afterward. Suddenly, the man who gave sweet guidance to generations has no idea where to go himself but down, down, down.
Modern TV has accustomed us to expect the big blow-up and/or breakdown from a Sad Man story like this; if we don’t get the the full Walter White-turned-Heisenberg special then at least there’s a Sopranos-style burst of violence. But Kidding is interested in much quieter things and it’s more interesting for it. Despite a broken vase or two, Jeff Pickles’ well-honed face of unending positivity in an unendingly negative world never fully cracks—at least in the four episodes available for review—leaving Carrey to carry the heavy load of portraying a steady simmer but not a boil. He does so masterfully; there’s a look of rage that passes over Jeff’s face in the fourth episode, “Sorry, Mom”, so quickly that I had to rewind to make sure it was even there at all. It is, but it snaps almost immediately back into the happy-rictus of a well-trained children’s performer. The effect is equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking, like catching Mickey Mouse with his head off at Disneyland.
For Carrey, the role reminds me of Keri Russell’s casting in The Americans, a show absolutely nothing like Kidding. But in both cases, the performer’s past colored the character they were playing. (For Russell, her wholesome all-American work on Felicity drove home both the subterfuge and unexpected violence of this Russian spy). For decades, Jim Carrey was America’s face-pulling, body-contorting clown, so eager to entertain he would throw himself around a courthouse bathroom or climb out of a robot rhinoceros’ asshole. Jim Carrey was a puppet or two away from Mr. Pickles for a lot of people, which makes the characters’ pain, etched across Carrey’s ever-malleable face, feel achingly real.
It doesn’t hurt that the first two episodes—both written by series creator Dave Holstein—are directed by Michel Gondry, who guided Carrey to his best dramatic work 14 years ago in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gondry has a way of reining in Carrey’s whackier features and molding them into something more controlled, almost like a loud whisper. The director also does wonderful things with absolute silence; there’s a beautiful, dreamy sequence in the second episode, “Pusillanimous,” that sees the camera following Jeff around a darkened, empty apartment as he watches his family in the next house over soundlessly moving on with their lives.
But the show falters in the moments where it makes Jeff more Willy Wonka than Mr. Rogers. A man hell-bent on spreading positivity in the face of a personal tragedy is more interesting than a man-child who truly doesn’t know any better. A plotline where Jeff is convinced his flip-phone must be broken because a one-night-stand didn’t text him back never comes close to landing, because we’re supposed to believe Jeff is a little innocent and a lot old-fashioned, not straight-up dumb.
But even the low moments are picked up by a fantastic supporting cast who have all stuck themselves firmly in the weird muck that is this show. Catherine Keener is as low-key excellent as always as Jeff’s sister and puppet-maker, Deirdre, who is dealing with a cheating husband and a daughter who can’t stop screaming. Frank Langella has toned down any sense of bombast as Mr. Pickles’ weary executive-producer, Seb—who also might be his father, a weird aside the show asks you to accept—who is laser-focused on protecting his billion-dollar children’s show property. When Kidding actually carves out a moment to be genuinely funny, it’s usually Langella huffing a cynically creative insult Jeff’s way. Personal favorite: “You look like Lee Harvey Oswald’s creative younger brother.”
Overall, Kidding is just an odd duck of a TV show that might divide audiences because it’s not actually about much other than the heaviness that comes with caring. It’s inconsistent, tonally and quality-wise, but the parts that land do so beautifully. Where else are you going to see Jim Carrey wearing a massive likeness of his own face while discussing the movie RoboCop? Nowhere else. Just Kidding.
Kidding premieres on Showtime Sunday, September 9.