The irony of an outwardly cheerful person who’s actually profoundly sad on the inside is about as deep as Showtime’s Kidding (created by Dave Holstein and premiering Sunday, September 9) gets thematically, despite its obvious efforts to reach for something meaningful. Jim Carrey takes on his first regular TV role in more than 20 years to play children’s TV host Jeff Pickles, a cuddly Mister Rogers type who’s struggling with grief over the death of his teenage son, a separation from his estranged wife Jill (Judy Greer), and an overall existential crisis about the direction of his life. But despite Carrey’s sad-clown credentials, Kidding isn’t nearly as funny or as moving as it aims to be.
Billed as a comedy, the show has very few laughs (or even jokes), and the characters aren’t even particularly charming. It’s a parade of terrible people who are sad all the time, starting with Jeff, the longtime host of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, which has elements of the classic Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (including Jeff’s sedate demeanor and soft, fatherly wardrobe) as well as more modern kids’ shows, thanks to a cast full of puppet characters created by head puppeteer (and Jeff’s sister) Deirdre (Catherine Keener). The show is a real family affair, and the gruff, bottom line-oriented executive producer Seb (Frank Langella) is actually Jeff and Deirdre’s father, although Kidding plays needlessly coy with that fact during the first episode.
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As a father, Seb is a great executive producer, concerned far more with the continued Mr. Pickles merchandising revenue (another departure from the Mister Rogers template) than he is with his son’s mental health. Jeff is still reeling from a car accident that left his son Phil dead, while Phil’s twin brother Will (Cole Allen) is coping by falling in with a crowd of stoner delinquents at school. The accident was also the final breaking point in Jeff and Jill’s marriage, and Jeff now lives in a rundown studio apartment (despite being a multi-millionaire), while Jill and Will stay in the family’s comfortable suburban house (where Jill also entertains her new boyfriend Peter, played by Justin Kirk).
Although multiple episodes of Kidding were directed by Carrey’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind collaborator Michel Gondry, very little of Gondry’s visual invention is on display in the four available for review, even in the numerous puppets (almost all of them grotesque) that Deirdre designs for the Mr. Pickles show. Nor does Kidding have the emotional depth of a movie like Eternal Sunshine, which used sci-fi conceits to amplify the anguished feelings of its main characters. Part of the problem is that despite its relentlessly glum tone, Kidding keeps its characters’ emotions muddled, so that even though it’s obvious that Jeff is sad, it’s hard to understand his specific reactions to things that happen around him.