With its keen self-awareness, exceptional writing and consistently great acting, Kidding — starring a perfectly cast Jim Carrey in his first series-regular role since In Living Color two decades ago — is Showtime’s best and most binge-worthy series in a long time.
The ease with which the show works belies the difficulty of its feat. Creator, writer and executive producer Dave Holstein (I’m Dying Up Here, Raising Hope, Weeds) and director and executive producer Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) have crafted a winning combination of searing humor and pathos, blending hopefulness and blunt reality in a way that’s truly original.
Kidding is essentially a modern take on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. So much could have gone wrong here (for example, if the show had been merely a spoof). But what makes Kidding so audacious is an approach that’s at once warm and dark-hearted as it imagines a Fred Rogers type who’s sad and damaged as the result of a tragic loss. The difficulty Kidding faces is almost monumental — Rogers was a beloved icon, true and soulful. He was the Dalai Lama of children’s television.
Carrey plays Jeff Pickles, of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, a family-run, low-budget series from a small PBS station that becomes enormously successful (inspiring generations of kids) and a powerhouse profit center for product lines. All that is put in jeopardy after the death of Phil, one of Jeff’s twin sons (both roles played astutely by Cole Allen). A year later, unraveling away from the public eye, Jeff is separated from his wife, Jill (Judy Greer, amazing as usual), and son Will (who is acting out in a way reminiscent of his more troubled dead brother).
The series opens with Mr. Pickles about to appear on Conan, and it’s such a glorious touch by Holstein to have Danny Trejo as a guest who’s already on the couch when Mr. Pickles arrives. There couldn’t be a bigger divide between the two, and that contrast provides the show’s first big laugh. When Mr. Pickles says he likes Trejo’s gaudy gold and diamond necklace, which says “P-Hound,” and wonders aloud what the “P” stands for, the show passes its first test. The audience might wonder whether a grown man could be so naive as to not know it’s short for “pussy,” but within minutes, Carrey has crossed that bridge and brought viewers along with him. We see that Jeff is weirdly, unhealthily devoid of cynicism, that his mind doesn’t go to those places. Instead of painting him as innocent in the way that Rogers was in his earlier era, the implication is that Jeff is damaged goods. And probably was even before his son died. That’s a nice card to have tucked in Kidding‘s pocket as it moves forward.
At work, Jeff’s producer, Seb, played with utter magnificence by Frank Langella (who gets all the dark, cynical jokes in support of his unwavering allegiance to the Mr. Pickles brand), is unwilling to let Jeff share his grief on the show: “Jeff needs to heal. Mr. Pickles is fine,” he insists. It’s such a perfectly stark line, nailing Seb’s focus and, as we’re soon to find out, his lack of empathy.
Head costume-maker and puppeteer Deirdre (Catherine Keener) is facing her own home-life troubles, and is sympathetic to Jeff’s inner meltdown. One of the interesting conceits in Kidding is that Seb is Jeff’s dad and Deirdre is his sister — or at least that’s what we’re led to believe. But could it be that’s another ruse to keep Jeff propped up? Who knows, but it’s funny and sad, like everything else about Kidding.
When, on his Conan visit, Mr. Pickles pulls out a ukulele — a character in its own right, known as Uke-Larry — the vast potential for Kidding is realized. The children’s television world is ripe for skewering. But when Trejo and the audience sing along with Mr. Pickles and Uke-Larry, the world-creating magic is set. We know that even a twisted badass like Danny Trejo loves Mr. Pickles, and shots of the audience show real affection for the man many of them grew up watching or are raising their kids to watch.
That moment defines the show’s conceit: The world will never see Jeff; it will only see Mr. Pickles. When Jeff, still mooning for his estranged wife (who’s getting her toes sucked by a new man), is worried what the world might think if he’s seen dating someone, Seb tells it to him straight: “The general populace doesn’t see you as a sexual being…. We see eyes, we see ears but there’s nothing between the legs.”
Carrey is superb as a man who, like Fred Rogers himself, really is that nice on and off set. As Mr. Pickles, his positivity is boundless and glides, guileless, through the TV screen: “None of us know how our stories will end. The sights we will see, the times we will spend. But if you close your eyes tight and say what you see, your stories become what you want them to be.”
There’s a cancer hospital named after him that his money helped fund, and he’s a regular presence there, talking to patients of all ages. Those moments, revealing how fundamentally, freakishly kind he is, are essential to the show. Mr. Pickles shares wisdom and kindness with all around him, even as we know the uplifting sweetness is not going to last. We know that Jeff is going to come unglued.
Credit Carrey for not going berserk with this transformation. He keeps a cap on Jeff’s rising anger and disillusionment. Carrey and Holstein want the darkness to ebb and flow, gurgle beneath the surface, be temporarily suppressed and then pop up. Jeff begins to self-sabotage and Seb is there to rein it in — and the twist that Seb is Jeff’s father makes everything that much darker. It’s impossible to overstate how sublimely great Langella is in that role.
Showtime sent four episodes for review, and they’re all exceptional. By the end of the fourth, Jeff’s transformation is underway, yet it seems that Kidding will keep the toothpaste in the tube for as long as it can. The process of Jeff recoiling against the notion that he doesn’t exist, that only Mr. Pickles does, works best when it comes in fits and starts. Because Jeff, in an existential battle, really does understand that Mr. Pickles is important to other people. He doesn’t want to ruin the magic, or what Seb sees as the brand. In several clever ways, Gondry and Holstein illustrate the constraints on that duality. The result is funny, wildly inventive and utterly sad. To pull off what is conceptually the implosion of Mister Rogers is a real triumph.
Cast: Jim Carrey, Catherine Keener, Frank Langella, Judy Greer, Cole Allen, Juliet Morris, Justin Kirk, Ginger Gonzaga, Tara Lipinski
Creator-writer: Dave Holstein
Director: Michel Gondry
Premieres Sept. 9, 10 p.m. (Showtime)